Luxury treading lightly

17 Sep 2023 by Jeremy Tredinnick
Kagi Maldives Resort & Spa in the North Malé Atoll

The line between environmentalism and luxury travel is slowly blurring, with technological advances and real commitment to positive change.

The sand is warm and soft between my toes, a balmy breeze ruffles the leaves in the palm trees, my stomach is full after an exquisite dinner, and the sky is putting on a colour-saturated show as the sun sinks below the horizon. It’s easy to see why the Maldives is considered to be the island holiday of a lifetime.

Since its tourism industry began in 1972, the Maldives has become possibly the most glamorous and famous destination for affluent holidaymakers. But the growing awareness of climate change has brought into focus how industries such as resort tourism need to adapt their business models toward greater environmental sustainability.

The unavoidable truth is, of course, that a tropical island holiday can never be environmentally beneficial if you have to fly there – you’re carbon positive before you even set foot on the ground. But it’s equally true that we aren’t going to stop travelling for pleasure, plus there are important economic benefits to tourism for many nations, the Maldives included. So the question becomes: how can we minimise our impact on the environment?

Taking the lead

Hotels around the world have realised the need to operate more efficiently and less wastefully. It’s common these days to see glass water bottles, bathroom products in refillable bottles, and signs in bedrooms asking you to consider reusing your towels and bedsheets. But there are more comprehensive and far-reaching initiatives possible – and a perfect case study for these can be found in the Maldives, for whom the climate crisis presents an existential threat to its very future.

Understanding that rising sea levels and the increasing severity of storms pose serious problems for the archipelago, the Maldivian government has become a leader in advocating emission reduction policies. It has declared a net-zero target of 2030, and in June 2022 initiated a strategic plan to phase out production, import and sales of single-use plastics by the end of this year and promote the use of sustainable alternatives.

There are also strict rules and regulations for all the resorts scattered across its many atoll islands. According to Patrice Aira, general manager of the Hurawalhi Island Resort and Kudadoo Private Island, both located in Lhaviyani Atoll: “Government bodies have strict policies for developing a resort, and these must be implemented for all aspects of the environment. Every year, the Ministry of Tourism, together with the Health Protection Agency and Ministry of Defence, inspect all resorts’ operations to check their compliance of environmental and safety guidelines.”

The two resorts mentioned above are owned by Crown & Champa Resorts, a Maldivian/Swedish joint company with a diversified portfolio of properties spread across a number of atolls, but all rooted in Maldivian heritage and united in their fierce commitment to utilising the most advanced technologies and business practices to reduce emissions and waste, and ensure as little impact on their fragile environment as possible.

KAGI: Boutique benefits

All of the typical environmental initiatives (glass bottles, paper straws, beach cleanups) can be found on Kagi Maldives Resort & Spa, but quickly discover other clever ideas. From small things like my room key card being made of wood rather than plastic (as are the comb and toothbrush in my overwater villa), to more significant technological applications, such as the fact that villa doors and sliding French windows are fitted with sensors to turn the air conditioning off if left open – a huge boon to energy conservation. The resort also uses LED lighting throughout, which saves up to 1,000kWh of electricity per day.

Fresh water is produced via a reverse osmosis desalination plant (drinking water is mineralised), and hot water is provided through a high-efficiency heat recovery system whereby waste heat produced by chillers is converted into thermal energy to enable hot showers without a negative impact on the environment. This simple but effective method saves an estimated 804kg of emissions every day.

Further investigation reveals a lot more going on behind the scenes. Out of sight in the staff-only portion of the island, a recycling centre processes glass, plastic and cardboard. Glass goes into a crusher to make powder, while cardboard and plastic is compacted before being sent to a recycling company in Malé. The result is a reduction of 75 per cent in incinerator requirements.

“We have an extensive waste management programme that includes reducing waste and maximising recycling through our own waste management plant,” says Jorg Weytjens, general manager of Kagi Maldives Resort & Spa. “This results in very limited waste needing to be disposed of via waste barge and ultimately in landfills.”

Disposal of waste water is another focus. “We have a full microorganism sewage treatment plant within the resort. This turns used water into grey water which we then use for garden irrigation,” adds Weytjens.

Providing the sort of fine-dining cuisine expected of a five-star resort inevitably means sourcing a lot of high-quality produce from overseas – with the accompanying carbon issues from plane/ship fuel, and so on. But there are many ways that this, too, can be minimised. Within the heart of the circular Noo Faru restaurant building is the resort’s herb garden, which produces fresh produce for the resort’s kitchens. It is fertilised with organic waste from those same kitchens, created by using a state-of-the-art composting machine. Around 100kg of compost is produced per day – and used in the resort’s gardens.

Over a delectable dinner at the Italian restaurant Nonna, the resort’s executive chef Denis Placereani explains the Kagi philosophy: “Our company brief for food is ‘as local as possible and packed with flavour’. We source every ingredient from as close as possible to the resort. When it’s not from the Maldives, then we’ll source produce from Sri Lanka or India, and so on. Suitable food waste is sent to a nearby island where animals are kept, including goats, chickens, geese, and we also have a hydroponic garden planned for salad vegetables.”

With only 50 villas and an island area of just 4.24 hectares, Kagi is a beautiful yet compact resort – but its size in some instances restricts it from certain environmental initiatives, for example solar energy supply. The current high cost of solar panels and batteries can make this an unfeasible source of cheap energy… but if you are a larger resort, the numbers can add up.

Solar panels installed at Hurawalhi Island Resort’s boat jetty

Hurawalhi: Economy of scale

After a short flight in a seaplane (yes, more carbon requiring offsetting) we arrive in the northern part of Lhaviyani Atoll, where both Hurawalhi Island Resort and Kudadoo Maldives Private Island are located, about 15 minutes’ boat ride apart. We are met by the convivial general manager of both resorts, Patrice Aira.

“We understand the importance of implementing sustainable practices and preserving our environment, hence all our operational policies invest more than the minimum requirements set by the government, while various non-governmental organisations and auditing firms provide assurances of our commitment to the environment.”

As we walk down the Hurawalhi boat jetty I notice its roof has a peculiar pattern. It turns out to be made from solar panels. In fact, the resort has 2,655 panels in various locations that can produce up to 816 kilowatts of electricity on a sunny day. As Hurawalhi boasts 180 villas both beach-based and overwater, plus extensive leisure and restaurant areas, a spa, activities-based buildings and staff accommodation, this cannot provide all the power needed, but it does cover 30-35 per cent of it – a reduction of carbon emissions equal to 766,531kg per year.

The resort also has wood suppliers who source sustainably, and the majority comes from 100 per cent sustainable forestry and FSC-certified companies in New Zealand. As I wander the lush island grounds I notice regular bins for both general waste and recyclable products, and the vehicles used to transport guests or other materials are either electric or bicycle powered.

Hurawalhi uses all the same technologies as Kagi for its water treatment and desalination, waste management, composting and compacting, but its greater size allows for a more expansive vegetable garden – as large as a football field. Here an impressively diverse range of fruit and vegetables is grown, fed by both treated waste water and organic fertiliser from composted food wastage.

This greater harvest is necessary because of the higher volume of guests, but there is no getting past the fact that much of a luxury resort’s food must come from other countries. “Eighty per cent of our fish is from the Maldives, but we cannot rely on local fishermen for the highest-level cuisine, so much of our menu in 5.8 consists of overseas fish, such as the Patagonian toothfish, the Canadian lobster and the Japanese king crab you are eating now,” says Eric Henri Drogueux, the resort’s executive chef. Drogueux is referring to 5.8, the world’s largest all-glass undersea restaurant, located off the jetty at a depth of 5.8 metres – hence the name. I am savouring a superb seven-course meal, with perhaps a little guilt, but the reality is that guests paying top dollar for a real luxury experience at Hurawalhi expect fine dining.

The view from 5.8 is an underwater kaleidoscope of colourful fish on a coral reef nursery, which is monitored by the resort’s two resident marine biologists. Given that the Maldives’ abundant marine life is both a major draw for tourists and a key resource for the nation’s population, keeping the underwater ecosystem healthy is as vital as all the efforts going on above water.

“The Manta Trust started in 2005 in the Maldives, and its flagship project is here,” says Frances Budd, a project manager for the trust. “We now have 25 affiliate projects around the world, all working towards the conservation and protection of manta rays and other mobulid rays, and the areas they inhabit. “The Trust’s core pillars are research, education and collaboration,” Budd continues, “and we all have a shared goal of saving this environment, so there is continuous sharing of information both regarding mantas, and other related projects.”

One such initiative is a coral restoration project managed by Paula Dominguez. “At Hurawalhi, we have a nursery comprising 114 frames with an average of ten coral fragments on each frame,” she says. “We have two stages: the first site was planted in 2021, and the second a little deeper in 2022. We monitor them every two weeks to check for bleaching, and so far the results have been much better than we expected, which is great.”

Kudadoo: Small is beautiful

My last stop is on Kudadoo Maldives Private Island. This property has only 15 “Ocean Residences” reached from a half-moon walkway curling around one side of its tiny island but Kudadoo’s main point of focus is apparent as the boat glides towards the jetty. The huge two-storey, over-water building known as The Retreat is an architectural masterpiece by Yuji Yamazaki, and home to the resort’s restaurant, bar, wine cellar, spa, gym, and even a Himalayan salt chamber.

But although the main communal space and social centre for the island, it’s The Retreat’s 2,000 sqm roof that fascinates and impresses, because it is covered entirely by angled solar panels that provide 100 per cent of the resort’s power needs. This is possible for two reasons: there are only 15 villas catering to a maximum of 50 people; and this being a “fully inclusive luxury experience” resort, the prices are correspondingly astronomical.

Kudadoo is the embodiment of what Crown & Champa Resorts’ COO Mohamed Solah means when he states that, “design and sustainability are at the core of our properties”. For those who can afford this type of uber-luxury – where you can order a US$12,000 bottle of Pétrus from the 2,000-bottle wine cellar, and call on your own exclusive butler 24 hours a day during your stay – it must be satisfying to know that your chosen destination comes with a Triple A energy rating.

I am being facetious; the example being set is one we should hope to see at all luxury resorts, whether in the Maldives or anywhere else in the world, to help us leave as light an eco-footprint in the sand as Kudadoo does.


A snapshot of other resorts doing their bit for the environment.

  • Anantara Kihavah Maldives – has a solar system providing 26 per cent of its energy needs, an orchid garden, a coral regeneration programme, and a biomass system for food waste.
  • Coco Collection – is home to the ORP Marine Turtle Rescue Centre and a team of resident marine biologists in charge of ocean restoration.
  • Dusit Thani Maldives – has extensive solar panels on the roofs of its main buildings.
  • Four Seasons Resort at Landaa Giraavaru – uses 3,105 solar panels, has a marine rehabilitation programme with resident marine biologists, and works with NOW Force for Good Alliance and Earth Check.
  • LUX* South Ari Atoll – has a floating solar power plant at sea, and a marine biology centre that works to safeguard whale sharks.
  • Patina Maldives, Fari Islands – has zero-waste kitchens; an on-site organic permaculture garden where guests can forage; and dining menus that promote plant-based diets.
  • The Ritz-Carlton Maldives, Fari Islands – has launched a drone project that works with a government-approved research programme to develop drone methods to search for and investigate plastics in the Maldives and wider Indian Ocean.
  • The St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort – has started a coral propagation programme with Reefscapers.
  • Six Senses Laamu – has opened the Sea Hub for Environmental Learning in Laamu (SHELL), a centre for the Maldives Underwater Initiative (MUI), a marine conservation group comprising marine biologists and partner NGOs such as The Manta Trust and the Olive Ridley Project.
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Business Traveller UK September 2023 edition
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