Sustainable travel

Fighting for survival: Maldives eco initiatives

The Maldives is in the business of nature. Its otherworldly beauty, along with its vulnerability to climate change, has inspired the creation of some of Asia’s most innovative eco-friendly resorts

The villas have outdoor showers surrounded by vegetation, kitchens stocked with champagne and wood bridges connecting balcony to bedroom. You’ll wake up here to birdsong. You’ll take 20 steps to the beach, where the gently lapping water is an arresting shade of turquoise and sealife just an easy wade out. You’re in paradise.

But there’s more to this resort, Soneva Fushi, than first meets the eye. In the heart of the island – like all Maldivian resorts, it has a whole island to itself – a lush garden grows nearly all of the produce served in the restaurants. An array of solar panels provides about 40 percent of the electrical needs; that’s expected to reach 100 percent by the end of this year. A desalination facility produces drinking water in glass bottles that are reused. And nearly all of the rubbish (including, remarkably, styrofoam) is either composted, recycled or upcycled on-site.

Green practices are in the small details, too. ‘We do things for guests where they are lessening their impact on the planet,’ says Ranvir Bhandari, area general manager for Soneva in the Maldives. ‘Menu items are all sustainable, even caviar and foie gras. All the wood used in our villas is from regenerating forests. Soft-boiled eggs are served not with mother-of-pearl spoons but hard wood from Sri Lanka.’

Opened 22 years ago, Soneva Fushi was the first resort in the Maldives that could be legitimately described as eco-friendly, and, having added numerous green features over the years, it stands today as a shining example in Asia of combining sustainable construction and hotel operations with ultra-luxurious hospitality. Other nearby resorts have since taken a few cues from this pioneer; you’d be hard-pressed to find a hotel here that doesn’t have at least a few impressive green features.

The whole notion of sustainability takes on greater significance here. Not only does it make sense for resorts to protect the environment their businesses are built on, but no country in the world is quite as sensitive to the effects of climate change as the Maldives.

The flattest country in the world – its highest point rising just 2.4 metres above sea level – is under threat from rising waters. ‘We want to see it before it’s gone,’ travellers told me a few years ago, not long after the Maldivian cabinet held a meeting underwater to draw attention to its plight. While the country of little islands dotted on the Indian Ocean is expected to stay well above water for the next few generations, the longer-term concern is very real, a bitter chaser to the overwhelming beauty that hits the senses upon first seeing the place.

Meanwhile, the country’s largest industry is tourism, capitalising on its greatest asset: nature. The resorts tend towards the lavish, catering to honeymooners and families on a serious splurge, and are notable for their villas that stand over the water with windows on the floors for invading the privacy of tropical fish. Top hotels lead diving excursions with whale sharks. They organise champagne-fuelled dolphin-watching boat trips at sunset. Restaurants are underwater and glass-walled (like Ithaa at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island). Villas have retractable roofs for stargazing (a feature of the master bedrooms at Soneva Jani).

But tourism is not without its destructive qualities. Trees need to be cleared and often coral damaged for construction. Waste and diesel generators are introduced. And many resources like food, building materials and all manner of amenities are shipped in from faraway places. To experience nature is, to whatever degree, to disrupt it.

For sustainability-focused resorts here, it’s a challenge that’s produced some innovative solutions. Soneva Fushi has become a centre for glass art, inviting artists (including Lino Tagliapietra of the famed Italian glass-making island Murano) to use empty wine and spirits bottles to produce sculptural pieces shown in its gallery, as well as cups and plates for the restaurants. Shredded styrofoam is mixed with concrete to make lightweight, highly insulating bricks to build structures like staff housing, which stay cool even in the summer heat.

And there’s no sacrifice to the standards expected at a resort where the smallest villas’ nightly rate ranges from HK$6,350 during low season to HK$34,000 at Christmas. But the typical guest at Soneva Fushi probably isn’t looking for traditional marble-clad luxury to begin with. ‘The definition of luxury has evolved,’ says Bhandari. ‘It used to be diamonds and chandeliers, branded, material things. Today luxury is much subtler and softer. Just space is luxury. Fresh air is luxury. Luxury is enjoying this beautiful environment and selecting your own rocket and tossing it into your salad.’

At Gili Lankanfushi, another resort with an extensive green agenda, a vegetable garden was started from scratch several years ago by executive chef John Bakker as a side project. Its assortment of produce today is impressive, including about 15 kinds of basil and 30 kinds of lettuce. ‘A lot of this is experimental,’ he says, while showing off fig, olive and pomegranate trees.

Produce gardens are a particular challenge in the Maldives, because not much grows in sand. This is where composting comes in, getting rid of food waste while creating fertile soil for gardening. Gili Lankanfushi now has an advanced machine that can speed up the composting process and two full-time gardeners. But that hasn’t stopped Bakker from putting together a worm farm by stacking a few containers and feeding food waste into them. What results is a powerful fertiliser in the form of worm manure: ‘It’s like jet fuel’.

The surrounding seas are an important focus, too, with many top Maldivian resorts working to protect and restore sealife while organising diving tours  for guests. Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru was one of the first resorts to build a facility dedicated to marine research and conservation, and many others have followed suit, including the two Four Seasons Maldives locations, Hurawalhi, Six Senses Laamu and Gili Lankanfushi, which all have marine biologists on staff to offer guests experiences such as coral replanting, manta ray identification (sightings are added to a research database) and sea turtle rehabilitation.

The Coral Lines project at Gili Lankanfushi lets guests help to restore the resort’s house reef. Small coral fragments are tied on ropes and grown in a lagoon nursery, and when they reach a certain size, guests can transplant them into the house reef. All the growth data and project details are posted online for guests to check on their coral’s progress, which also gives open access to researchers around the world who might want to learn from the programme.

For the most eco-enthusiastic resorts in the Maldives, it’s been about trial and error – and a lot of passion. It might not be a traditional business model, but as the number of resorts here keeps growing, they continue to stand out from the pack.

‘People want to go to a place that’s environmentally friendly; I think that’s a selling tool,’ says Bakker. ‘A lot of resorts have to learn from each other and compete, so I think people are pushing each other to do more and do better.’   

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