As the world starts to open up again, a lot of people are thinking about travel. After a fairly miserable two years, it’s possible that you may fancy a holiday that enhances your wellbeing, and you wouldn’t be alone – hence the growing popularity of wellness tourism. According to the US-based non-profit Global Wellness Institute (GWI), wellness tourism is defined as “travel associated with the pursuit of maintaining or enhancing one’s personal well-being”. It’s about specifically heading to a place or taking part in activities there linked to health, mindfulness or enlightenment, and it’s proving the latest thing in travel.
That would mean over a billion individual wellness trips around the globe, with these tourists typically spending 130% more than the average traveller
The sector is certainly looking to be on the rise economically. From 2015 to 2017, the wellness tourist market grew from $563bn to $639bn – more than twice as fast as the growth of tourism overall, according to the GWI. Even as Covid was sweeping the globe (or perhaps because of it), it was still being predicted that the market would reach $919bn by 2022, which would have represented 18% of all global tourism (in truth, it actually declined to around $436bn, still a formidable total). That would mean over a billion individual wellness trips around the globe, with these tourists typically spending 130% more than the average traveller, making the sector an obvious profit spinner.
Although Covid has shaken the whole travel sector, all industry forecasts agree that it’s wellness tourism that’ll really roar to life in 2022. The new GWI forecast anticipates growth of 21% every year through 2025 until the sector is worth $1.1tn. It also predicts that the spa and thermal/mineral springs markets, the other two wellness sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, will see respective growth of 17% and 15%. Demand for wellness experiences rose as 2021 unfolded, with luxury travel expert Tom Bartholomew noting that demand right before Omicron was so high that “securing spa and wellness treatments at hotels [at the time could] be as challenging as the exclusive dinner reservation”. GWI research director Beth McGroarty suggests that people need holidays that actually help them relax: “People can’t afford, given the levels of stress, to take a vacation that is not in some ways restorative or rejuvenating.”
The goal of wellness trips, according to Equinox Explore senior director Leah Howe, is that members return home feeling better than when they left
As we enter an era of new traveller values, as well as a period of rapid recovery from seriously pent-up demand for both travel and healing, it’s clear how these two things can go hand in hand. Of course, it’s not only the travel sector focusing on wellness – the indoor cycling chain SoulCycle and the sports clothing retailer Lululemon have both angled their marketing this way –, but it’s increasingly featuring in trips. Hikes in Morocco or a trip to the Italian Riviera may now feature strictly curated meals, supervised workouts, and meditation sessions, to give a few examples. The goal of wellness trips, according to Equinox Explore senior director Leah Howe, is that members return home feeling better than when they left.
As the sector expands, it has become clear that some destinations aren’t equipped to handle the influx
These trips are designed to be relaxing for the tourists, and they are also proving lucrative for the venues. Tourism can be the lifeblood of a country’s economy, and the wellness boom is much appreciated – in India, for example, more than five million jobs are linked to the industry. Wellness travel helps mitigate the damage done by overtourism, according to McGroarty: “Wellness travel brings people to the country but not to the same old places. One of the trends of wellness travel is more off-the-grid, deep in nature, so you’re getting people out of the old tourist traps.”
As with any new trend, wellness tourism has faced some criticism (other than the obvious question about whether it actually works). Often, these trips are quite expensive, suggesting wellness is the preserve of the well-off – so although wellness tourists can be anyone, Wellness Tourism Association president Anne Dimon notes that the majority tend to be higher-educated women between 30 and 60. There are also issues on the safety front, as the sector is largely unregulated – training and qualifications vary widely depending on the country, and one study found that over 60% of retreat managers didn’t go beyond basic accommodation or health and safety issues. As the sector expands, it has become clear that some destinations aren’t equipped to handle the influx – in some sites, there’s such a lack of basic infrastructure, sewage is just thrown into nearby rivers.
Equinox research director Gabrielle Lieberman notes that wellness is featuring more in people’s everyday lives, but the trips offer something more: “While for most people this may mean incremental changes in how they manage their health, luxury experiences like these allow us to see what all is possible in pushing the limits. You’ll see these wellness retreats become even less of a novelty and integrated more naturally into everyday experiences. Accessibility is key here, in that managing your health shouldn’t feel out of reach.” So, if you fancy trying some wellness tourism in 2022, go for it – it may help you discover a new you.