HTLS 2021: The luxury travel industry needs to do much more than just lip service, says Sonu Shivdasani
New Delhi: Sustainability and eliminating single-use plastic are crucial in the way forward for the luxury travel sector, Indian-British hotelier Sonu Shivdasani said on Friday, and added that engaging the community also played an important role.
“Sustainability is the new buzzword in luxury travel, especially after seeing the impact of our previous practices,” the chief executive officer and joint creative director of Soneva, a resort chain, Brunch editor Jamal Sheikh at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit on Friday.
“The industry needs to realise that any economic activity unfortunately benefits only the richest 20-30% of people on the planet. If you can afford to travel, even on a low-cost airline, or stay in a budget hotel, you’re still among the richest 20% on the planet, and what you’re consuming impacts the poorest. So, we need to be aware of that; we’re starting to see the consequences of our behaviour. On the current trajectory, by 2030 there’ll be more plastic in the ocean than fish,” he added.
Shivdasani said a billion people don’t have access to water. “By 2030, sub-Saharan Africa won’t be able to produce half the crops it does, people won’t have access to water, Gurgaon, the land of golf courses, is just seeping the water table...”
Shivdasani has worked since the beginning of his career in the 1990s towards promoting greater environmental accountability within the hospitality sector and beyond.
“The good thing”, he said, “is that the technology is there, the opportunities are there, but the luxury travel industry is yet to truly embrace this. It’s only lip service because there’s so much more one can do, when one puts one’s mind to it.”
So, what does the luxury travel sector need to do urgently to save the environment? “Your impact on carbon emissions is a top priority,” he said. “Waste is clearly very important, eliminating single-use plastic, and then engaging the community.”
“One of the big things the travel industry has to think about is how they’re creating output, but not creating great happiness for the local population,” he says. “Think of the coast of Spain -- Costa Brava -- you’re a Spaniard living there, suddenly these Germans come along, and they build skyscrapers, they build bars, bring over German employees and German food. Raw materials went through the roof, cost of living went up... as a local, you couldn’t live there; you’d have to move up to the hills like the Spanish did to the Mayans -- a bit of poetic justice. So that’s a key thing for any hotelier. Are you employing locally? are you engaging with the community? Minimising your impact on the planet?”
When asked how luxury travellers have changed since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out -- Indian luxury travellers in particular -- Shivdasani noted that they’ve become more sensitive as individuals. They also seem to be taking longer vacations. “We’re seeing Indian guests staying for two weeks, which wouldn’t happen before,” he said.
But what is true luxury to Sonu Shivdasani and his wife Eva? “True luxury is that which is rare,” he said. “It’s not about objects, or gold or marble. You might have a 40-storey house but can you take a long barefoot walk in the garden? Can you watch a movie where the blanket of stars isn’t just on the screen?”
How should the industry try to bounce back? Shivdasani was adamant that resorts and hotels need to offer guests unique experiences that they can treasure, experiences that they will travel for, in safety, in Covid-free environments.