By Gregg Rockett and Samantha Amus
Part I: Background and a Focus on the Asia Pacific Region
Contributing to the research were students of The George Washington University – School of Business: Arianna Fisher, Yuting Ni and Jiahui Lin. The authors acknowledge contributions from Mia Kyricos, an industry thought leader on health and wellness tourism.
This is a two part-article addressing the health and wellness tourism eco-system, comprising a focus on three regions where this travel submarket is growing: Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa. The research was undertaken by graduate students of the George Washington School of Business, Masters in Tourism Administration Program in connection with a strategic project sponsored by a major global hospitality company. Details on the sponsor and the proposed recommendations of the strategic project have been kept confidential.
The tourism industry has always been one of the most resilient and robust economic sectors in the world. But health and wellness tourism has recently emerged as a substantial contributor to growth in the industry and could very well carry the tourism sector as it recovers from the impact of the pandemic. An example of a recent initiative to leverage this prospect includes the recent announcement by Kerzner International (umbrella company to the Atlantis Resort and One & Only hotel brands) of the launch of the SIRO brand, characterized as an “immersive lifestyle destination” that is aimed at inspiring “fitness and wellness growth”. Even automaker Lexus has introduced a wellness travel package called “Retreats in Motion” that offers a one-week road trip in a Lexus automobile to a series of wellness retreats.
The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) defines wellness tourism as travel associated with the pursuit of maintaining or enhancing one’s personal wellbeing. With so much unwellness embedded in today’s travel, wellness tourism brings the promise of combating those negative qualities and turning travel into an opportunity to maintain and improve our holistic health.
The GWI reports that wellness tourism embraces two large industries – tourism and wellness – and consumers now take their health consciousness and wellness routines on the road when they travel for business or pleasure. In a 2018 report the Institute reported that wellness tourism represented a $639 billion market globally in 2017 and was growing at double the pace of the tourism industry in general.
Tourism for the purpose of enhancing wellness is a concept that is centuries old. According to GWI, the first resort spa appeared in Karelia, Russia some 300 years ago. Traditional destinations catering to travelers seeking healthy, curative healing include Évian-les-Bains in France and Baden-Baden in Germany. Historic hotels in the US that have been catering to spa-goers since the 19th century include the Omni Bedford Springs and Omni Homestead hotels. More contemporary examples of resorts that are dedicated health and wellness retreats include Canyon Ranch and Miraval.
Hyatt’s acquisition in 2017 of the latter concept, Miraval, began a strategic focus by the hotel chain on health and wellness in hospitality that included a further acquisition of Exhale spas and a partnership with meditation company, Headspace. This focus has evolved into a fundamental underpinning of Hyatt’s global corporate social responsibility program centered on wellbeing and thriving communities.
Marriott International has been looking to capitalize on this segment in collaborating with existing wellness brands with three of its hotel brands. Historically, Marriott has leveraged collaborative partnerships to create unique extensions of its brands, such as in the ClubSport fitness resort concept for the Renaissance brand. The Renaissance ClubSport fitness resorts in Walnut Creek and Aliso Viejo, in collaboration with Leisure Sports Inc., provide “a place to exercise, play, relax or gather and socialize” (per company website).
Additionally, through the acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Marriott adds to its collection of hotel brands a premium, luxury wellness brand solution in Westin Hotels & Resorts. The Westin brand positions itself as a leader in travel wellness with its “Six Pillars of Well-being: Sleep Well, Eat Well, Move Well, Feel Well, Work Well and Play Well” (per company website).
A Focus on the Asia Pacific Region
Growth prospects for health and wellness tourism are particularly evident in the Asia-Pacific region. According to the GWI, the Asia Pacific region was in 2017 the third largest region in terms of overall estimated expenditures on wellness tourism and was projected to grow by the highest growth rate of all regions going forward at 13.0% (pre-pandemic estimates).
Asian societies have historically emphasized physical and mental wellness activities; and this legacy has facilitated a focus on promoting wellness traditions and activities in numerous countries within the region. Nepal, India, Indonesia and the Maldives are examples of countries that emphasize health and wellness tourism on their respective tourism promotion sites.
And while there is an array of opportunities at all price points for pursuing health and wellness tourism in Asia, it is at the luxury tier where that region leads globally. Hotel brands such as Ritz-Carlton, Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons deserve mention for creating bespoke, unique experiences from ayurvedic healing, chakra ceremonies to blackout meditation rooms. Six Senses is an additional hospitality brand that stands out as creating wellness experiences in out-of-the-ordinary destinations.
It is also important to consider the types of consumers, also known as psychographics, that characterize wellness tourists across Asia. An array of psychographic ‘tribes’ are naturally attracted to this sector, including natural foodies, spirit seekers, and yogis/yoga enthusiasts and would travel to Asia for wellness tourism due to their unique and extensive offerings. Hence, health and wellness tourism has naturally become a priority in promoting tourism to many countries to the region.
The Importance of Health and Wellness Tourism in the Asia Pacific Region
According to GWI, the Asia-Pacific region is one of the fastest-growing health and wellness tourism regions, both in terms of tourism trips globally as well as tourism expenditures. Total trips over the period of 2015 to 2017 grew annually at more than 15% and expenditures by nearly 11%. While overall trips to the region in 2017 were nearly a third globally, the expenditures on health and wellness tourism were closer to 20% globally. China leads in both number of trips (70 million) as well as expenditures (32 million), but this is dominated by domestic trips at an average spend that is below the average for the region. After China, international inbound tourism for health and wellness is most robust to Thailand and Indonesia. Spend per wellness trip from international inbound tourists is greatest in Australia, India, China, Japan and South Korea. On average, the spend on health and wellness travel in these Asian countries by international is five to ten times that of domestic travelers.
The 2018 GWI report indicates that the region has three countries in the top ten in terms of total expenditures on health and wellness tourism and seven in the top twenty. In terms of number of trips, three are in the top ten – China, Japan and India. Total direct jobs supported by this segment in the Asia Pacific region were 10.1 million in 2017, which is five times that in North America and three times that in Europe.
Overall, this region “has made the most gains in the number of wellness trips and wellness tourism expenditures, with demand stimulated by strong economies and an expanding middle class”, as identified in the 2018 GWI report. Hence, it can be inferred that more and more people are traveling to maintain a healthy lifestyle, reduce stress, prevent diseases, and improve their wellbeing.
Countries Actively Promoting Health and Wellness Tourism
Since Asian societies have historically emphasized physical and mental connections, health and wellness tourism is not only popular in Asia, but it is also a top priority in terms of promotion to the sector. Asian countries that focus on health and wellness tourism on their destination websites include Nepal, India, Indonesia and the Maldives. The legacy of wellness and wellbeing in the daily lives of the residents of these countries contributes to the authenticity of the offerings.
Nepal prominently features yoga on its tourism promotion site as a spiritual wellness activity and thoroughly expands on the inter-relatedness between yoga and meditation as it relates to the tourism product in the country. On the Discover Nepal website, prospective tourists are informed to “keep an eye out for notices on the bulletin boards of hotels and restaurants where you will find flyers and brochures detailing classes and courses on yoga”. One can find yoga retreats/classes in Kathmandu, but yoga is offered across Nepal especially in Thamel which is their tourist district. A popular yoga retreat is the Himalayan Yoga Academy in Kathmandu – this eight-day retreat is unique because “yoga and meditation are accompanied by daily therapy sessions to support your spiritual, emotional and mental wellbeing”. In addition to promoting yoga, this destination features spirituality and pilgrimage, as well as astrology, meditation, and faith healing. Ultimately, wellness activities are one of the ways in which Nepal promotes its destination to its prospective tourists.
India, known for its cultural mindfulness, has a large presence in terms of wellness and wellbeing within its society. The experiences section of the IncredibleIndia website features a category that includes yoga and wellness. This webpage explains the importance of yoga and provides a list of popular yoga and wellness destinations in India. One popular destination identified by the research includes the Bamboo Yoga Retreat in Goa, India. This specific retreat is located at Patnem beach and offers a range of yoga styles in addition to spa treatments and plant-powered food. Conclusively, India is a destination that values wellness and incorporates it within their daily lives; hence these activities are authentic and can be extremely appealing to a prospective tourist, specifically wellness tourists.
Indonesia’s tourism website introduces their yoga vacations under the “experience 5 wonders.” Indonesia is a place where people take care of their mental and physical health with an emphasis on the inner body. This destination believes that fitness will continue to develop in the coming years.
On the other hand, Bali, Indonesia has become a top luxury spa tourism destination in Asia. The Wonderful Indonesia website highlights “great spa and wellness retreats” and features views of the Soori Bali Spa that include a wide sandy beach and vistas of green rice fields. Ultimately, Indonesia is committed to improving the quality and typology of wellness tourism as it focuses on authenticity and location-based wellness programs.
While the Maldives promotes the country as a whole by using the slogan “the sunny side of life,” it promotes wellness tourism on the Visit Maldives website via the tag line “the spiritual side of life”. The website notes that in the Maldives, a spa can be as much or as little as you want it to be – either a relaxation after a full day of activities or a full luxury experience. These spas can be a journey that incorporates mind, body and soul in order to focus and enhance oneself. Some are surrounded by lush foliage while others are built above water. A prominent location featured on the Maldives tourism website is Amilla Fushi Maldives Resort as a destination that shares wellness with the world. The Maldives tourism website notes that their spas have something for everyone.
Leading with Luxury Experiences in the Region
There is an array of health and wellness experiences at every price point in Asia, but it is the luxury offering that truly stands out in the region. The Ritz-Carlton, a luxury hotel brand that is part of the Marriott portfolio of brands, opened its first Asia hotel in Hong Kong and its first Asian resort in Bali, Indonesia. The hotel brand is currently represented in more than 30 destinations in the region. Some notable resorts featured on the Ritz-Carlton websites include the Okinawa property situated in the forest of Yanbaru featuring a two-level forest-side spa sanctuary; Phulay Bay near the Andaman Sea in Thailand that features organic herbal treatments for detoxing the body; and the Mandapa resort adjacent to the Ubud rainforest in Bali featuring Balinese healing touch wellness rituals.
Mandarin Oriental is a Hong Kong based hospitality company with some 14 properties in Asia, most providing wellness programs that are exclusively curated for each guest’s needs. The Mandarin Oriental websites offer ‘Time Rituals” to encourage clients to schedule a time rather than a specific treatment to afford personalization of the experience. Some notable resorts include the Sanya property on the Hainan Island in China that features a mixture of Tian Quan therapy, a Chinese body wrap, and pressure point massage; and, the Macau property that features an “inner strength” spa that facilitates a re-defining of the clients’ wellness goals and routines.
With more than 30 locations in Asia, the Four Seasons hotel company websites also emphasize personally curated wellness experiences for their guests, ranging from a spiritually restorative “blessing” at the Bali property near to Jimbaran Bay, to the second Bali property at Sayan that features a resident wellness manager. The Six Senses Integrated Wellness website promotes more than ten properties in the region, each with wellness integrated into the experience. The company’s six pillars of wellness address all aspects of the guest stay, including sleep, nourishment, movement, mindfulness and growth.
Prospects for Various Psychographic ‘Tribes’ in the region
A wellness vacation can allow one to gain help, love, and fulfilment while on their journey of life. That being said, there are three main consumer psychographic ‘tribes’ that are attracted to health and wellness tourism across the Asia Pacific region: natural foodies, spirit seekers/thinkers, and yogis or yoga enthusiasts.
Natural foodies often seek pure and natural foods which can be found within vegan or vegetarian cuisine. Countries in South and Southeast Asia, such as India and Nepal, have extensive natural vegetarian and vegan options as their diets are primarily plant based. The Indian population has over 400 million vegetarians due to the religions practiced in India (Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism). These religions consume plant-based diets because they believe in Ahimsa, which means kindness and non-violence towards all living things. One can find authentic vegan food at Ulpotha, a yoga retreat in Sri Lanka, because they solely offer natural foods to their retreat guests. Part of Ulpotha’s mission and goal is to be as authentic as possible which explains their reason for serving natural foods that are consumed in Sri Lanka.
Spirit seekers and thinkers are often on the path of self-discovery. Spirituality can be defined in numerous ways as it can be based off of one’s perception and “many believe that there is no right way to define such a broad universal concept”. That being said this concept can reach an array of people allowing the consumer market for wellness tourism to be across a larger spectrum. In this regard, the Amansara in Angkor, Cambodia stands out as they have spiritual programs within their wellness offerings. According to its website, Amansara’s mission is to create a journey “into an environment of resorptive calm. Here, time slows down, all is still, and the air is laced with scents of fragrant fruits and flowers”.
Lastly, yogis and/or yoga enthusiasts are likely to travel to Asia for yoga retreats due to the differences between western and eastern yoga. Yoga in India is peaceful and has a different take on the “yoga lifestyle” compared to that of the west. Some of the major differences in their practices are that food affects one’s emotions as well as understanding that yoga is more than just an exercise. Being able to experience authentic yoga practices in Asia is something that can appeal to a yogi/yoga enthusiast as these practices and offerings aren’t authentically nor commonly offered in the west. These yoga retreats are especially prominent in India, Nepal, Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka due to the fact that Asia is the birthplace of ancient healing philosophies such as yoga. Conclusively, this psychographic ‘tribe’ would find authentic and suitable offerings across Asia due to the its history and beliefs.
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