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Breaking Down the Rising Travel Trend: Wellness Tourism

By Guan Tan

"Wellness tourism is travel where the main purpose of the trip is to focus on some aspect of one's health, be it physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual," says Sally Halstead, wellness manager at COMO Shambhala Estate Bali. Global wellness tourism reported strong annual growth, double that of general tourism.
 
COMO Shambhala Estate
"Wellness tourism is travel where the main purpose of the trip is to focus on some aspect of one's health, be it physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual," says Sally Halstead, wellness manager at COMO Shambhala Estate Bali. Global wellness tourism reported strong annual growth, double that of general tourism.

The travel economy has changed. Hotel guests are increasingly ditching their bottles of wine and liquor for clean juices. They, too, are taking time out of their travel itinerary to attend activities such as CrossFit, yoga, meditation and spa sessions — men included. 

It's all part of what has been dubbed "wellness tourism" by the Global Wellness Institute (GWI). In fact, a recent industry report by the GWI noted strong year-on-year growth for the global wellness tourism sector — once valued at US$563.2 billion in 2015, later $639.4 billion in 2017, at an annual growth rate of 6.5%. 

Wellness tourism is not a new concept. "People have been travelling for wellness since the dawn of civilisation, with the Greeks and Romans seeking out cures and waters to improve their health," says Susie Ellis, ceo and chairman at GWI. A similar analogy would be tourists making trips to the lauded hot springs in Hokkaido, Japan for their medicinal benefits. Yet, the modern wellness tourism sector has expanded way beyond that. 

Hoteliers such as Lisa Manser, director of business development at COMO Shambhala traces the current trend of wellness tourism back to 20 years ago. Later in 2010, the wellness tourism took off, driven by consumers' need to offset an overwhelmed and stressful digitised lifestyle. In that same year, GWI published their first-ever report on the global wellness market, cementing the trend for wellness tourism. Yet, real growth only came up in "the last two to five years" when "people actively [sought] holidays and trips that emphasise well-being with intelligently curated wellness programmes, retreats, workshops, activities, and treatments," says Manser. 

COMO Shambhala Estate"I would say we have seen a huge shift over the past two to five years, where the number of wellness travellers has increased massively," says Sally Halstead, wellness manager at COMO Shambhala Estate, Bali. "I think the root of the shift is how unwell the world and its inhabitants are becoming."
"I would say we have seen a huge shift over the past two to five years, where the number of wellness travellers has increased massively," says Sally Halstead, wellness manager at COMO Shambhala Estate, Bali. "I think the root of the shift is how unwell the world and its inhabitants are becoming."

By wellness, the GWI is referring to "travel associated with the pursuit of maintaining or enhancing one's personal well-being," the 2018 wellness report noted. It's a generic and vague definition which Mia Kyricos, senior vice president and global head of wellbeing at Hyatt Hotels Corporation, explains further, breaking the term "well-being" into three facets — "physical, mental, and spiritual". 

A Quiet Resort In The City

"To Hyatt, well-being is more than what you do; it's how you feel. We believe that travel shouldn't disrupt your well-being, but instead, provide an opportunity to enhance it," says Kyricos.

At the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, this continuity of well-being translates into a jet-lag massage upon arrival to remove the physical and mental stressors accumulated over the flight, a variety of fitness facilities that guests may practice back home, and healthy-dining menus — services that will help guests find balance.

Yet, recovering from a flight is not all to wellness tourism. Travellers "want to maximise the benefits of the time they do take off, returning home feeling better than when they left," says Susie Ellis of GWI. Even when travelling to a hectic business hub like Hong Kong, wellness travellers want to be separated from the hustle and bustle of the city and feel like they are resting in a far-flung resort. 

So, the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong has designed their guest rooms with elements such as "deep-soaking tubs and floor-to-ceiling windows" to help invoke a zen, resort-like experience. It's a wellness experience that even locals are partaking from. "On weekends we have some city-dwellers who book short staycations, checking in to the hotel to use the leisure and dining facilities — all without having to pull out their passport or hop on a plane," says Kyricos of Hyatt. 

The Temple HouseA jacuzzi in the penthouse of The Temple House, Chengdu. The hotel was recently awarded Asia's Best Wellness Retreat and China's Best Wellness Retreat by World Spa Awards 2018.
A jacuzzi in the penthouse of The Temple House, Chengdu. The hotel was recently awarded Asia's Best Wellness Retreat and China's Best Wellness Retreat by World Spa Awards 2018.

Up north in Chengdu, the resort-in-a-city trend continues. Guests want to "find peace" in "an urban resort situated in the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan city," says Grace Chuang of The Temple House. The hotel boasts "generous and green open spaces" and even welcomes guests' pets, citing their role in guests' emotional and physical wellness. 

The Healthier Tourist

In the past decade, Chuang noticed a shift in consumer behaviour. Hotel guests are now exercising more, don stylish activewear in the likes of "Under Armour, Lululemon, Adidas, and Nike", are more receptive to wellness activities, and are eating healthier. "Contrary to how the business of hard liquor soared back then in China, especially over business meals, consumers nowadays will consciously choose a healthy diet," notes Chuang. 

It's a change that's observed in other countries as well. 

"Usual tourists might have a focus on activities that were traditionally seen as a part of holidays — such as tours around local noteworthy points of interest, or food and beverage events like a rich dinner with lots of alcohol," echoes Sally Halstead, wellness manager at COMO Shambhala Estate Bali. " These days, with the focus on wellness, tours have been replaced with activities such as nature walks in the local scenery." These lavish meals and alcohol have been replaced by healthy, local cuisine as well. 

COMO Shambhala Estate"Food and beverage is now a part of the cure rather than a part of the problem," says Sally Halstead, wellness manager at COMO Shambhala Estate. "Healthful menus offer a chance [for travellers] to taste the rich variety of local cuisine and, at the same time, use food as a medicinal part of the guest's journey."
"Food and beverage is now a part of the cure rather than a part of the problem," says Sally Halstead, wellness manager at COMO Shambhala Estate. "Healthful menus offer a chance [for travellers] to taste the rich variety of local cuisine and, at the same time, use food as a medicinal part of the guest's journey."

As the wellness tourism sector continues to grow, industry insiders expect five key trends for the years ahead: more affordable wellness products, extreme wellness tourism, female empowerment, digital detox, and the destigmatisation of mental health issues. 

While the rapid growth of wellness tourism has been largely attributed to the rise of the middle-class consumer, the wellness trend is set to diffuse to lower price points. "There's definitely a trend towards accessibility and affordability — price points that the average tourist can pay," says Susie Ellis, ceo and chairman of the GWI. "One example is Hotel Komune in Bali which has all the trappings of an amazing wellness holiday including farm-to-table food, amazing natural surroundings, yoga, fitness and surfing retreats — without a luxe price tag." 

These wellness trips are stretching beyond the four walls of a hotel. Travellers are taking dramatic, "transformative breaks — whether it's climbing the highest glacier, participating in Survivor-style challenges or training with a super athlete. [It] takes people completely out of their day-to-day lives, allowing them to completely engage with the task at hand," Ellis continues.

COMO Shambhala EstateFree climbing at the COMO Shambhala Estate in Bali.
Free climbing at the COMO Shambhala Estate in Bali.

While Ellis noticed a rise of "retreats made by and for women" and "off-the-grid" digital detoxes as well, the rise in wellness tourism marks progress for a wider societal issue — the destigmatisation of mental health. 

"I would say the old perspective of mental health being of lesser importance than physical, and in some cases, an almost taboo subject, is transforming greatly," explains Sally Halstead, wellness manager at COMO Shambhala Bali. "People are also coming to understand more and more that often times, physical illness begins with stress and starts in the mind." 

Wherever the wellness tourism industry may find itself in the next decade, Lisa Manser of COMO Shambhala thinks that the industry should never stray from the heart of wellness. "Each year we read about the newest and most exciting 'wellness trend' but all in all they always come back to the age-old saying, 'We are what we eat, think and move' — that is the actual foundation."