Words By Bryony Rule
Worth $639 billion in 2017, wellness tourism constitutes a key component of the global wellness industry, which is valued at over $4.5 trillion and growing at twice the rate of the global economy. The wellness industry has firmly embedded health, fitness and wellbeing into everyday life and consciousness, establishing itself as a full-time and expected pursuit. This lifestyle is one that never takes a holiday, but rather reshapes the meaning of taking a break. Does the burgeoning wellness sector offer something of value to the tourism industry, or does it have a more sinister side?
A plethora of activities and trips come under the umbrella of wellness tourism, defined by The Global Wellness Institute as ‘travel associated with the pursuit of maintaining or enhancing one’s personal wellbeing.’ From yoga retreats, spiritual awakenings and hiking trips, to ayahuasca ceremonies, wellness tourism promises the traveller the opportunity to become fully immersed in the aspiration of individual welfare. Rather than treating a holiday as a break from healthy routines and habits, trips geared towards wellness enable tourists to ramp up these activities and focus solely on their wellbeing. Different destinations offer a plethora of experiences to the traveller. Often, these are based in the region’s indigenous practices, the surrounding natural environment, or local cuisine and ingredients. For example, wellness tourism to India is synonymous with yoga and Ayurveda retreats, Iceland with geothermal spas, Egypt with sand baths.
Often, tourism has perhaps been associated with the opposite of wellness: Stag Weekends ploughing their way through beachfront bars and fast-food joints; making the most of poolside happy hour; or suffering from so-called Bali Belly. Wellness tourism promises an alternative experience, to the traveller who wants more from their holiday. The fact that the wellness tourism industry is growing twice as quickly as tourism overall demonstrates that demand is high for this alternative. Is happy hour taking on a new meaning?
In the context of a global epidemic of chronic diseases, driven by stress, diet, and other cultural factors, the need for holidays which revitalise and restore is arguably greater than ever. Studies have demonstrated the positive impact of wellness retreats on individual health, with benefits being felt for weeks after travellers return home. Furthermore, these trips can cultivate a sense of community not found in other forms of tourism. Surrounded by like-minded people, often with limited contact to the outside world, travellers build strong bonds and a feeling of collective effervescence. In our increasingly competitive, fragmented and individualistic culture, this is an invaluable asset.
Beyond benefits felt by the tourists themselves, the sector can be advantageous to the destination community, too. Providing jobs directly (the wellness tourism industry employs over five million people in India), travellers also support other local businesses, such as those providing transport, food and accommodation, during their stay. Due to the demographic of the average wellness traveller, who spends more and has a desire for authenticity, problems associated with mass tourism can be mitigated. Locations faced with over-tourism often experience a ‘race to the bottom’ phenomenon, with competitors pushing prices down, and outside tour companies benefitting at the expense of local communities. Generally, wellness tourists skip the typical tourist hotspots, instead seeking more off-grid locations and experiences, alleviating the destructive impact that mass tourism can have on these popular destinations.
However, with an influx of people to a remote location, unequipped for the large numbers that wellness tourism can bring, comes inevitable environmental impacts. The obfuscated, ugly side to wellness tourism is its waste management problem. Across the world, infrastructure in destinations faced with a boom of incoming tourists has struggled to match the pace, with sewage being dumped into water systems and make-shift landfills springing up on the outskirts of communities. Rather than easing the burden of traditional over-tourism, is wellness tourism just expanding the map of where the brunt is felt?
Although many are rapturous about the merits of wellness holidays, this is not a universal experience. Unlike traditional medicine, the wellness sector is largely unregulated, meaning that qualifications, safety and standards on wellness excursions can vary wildly. Although infrequent, there are a number of worrying stories of these trips gone wrong. People have died taking ayahuasca, a traditional hallucinogen, on Amazonian rainforest retreats which are becoming increasingly popular among young travellers. There are stories of meditation camps becoming cults, with dangerous, and at times deadly, consequences. In 2009, three people died at a ‘sweat lodge’ in the Arizona desert, in a ritual led by widely proclaimed self-help guru, James Arthur Ray. Granted, these occurrences are extremely rare, but nevertheless are a by-product of a patchy, unregulated sector. With an absence of quality or safety standardisation, it can be very difficult for travellers to distinguish the legitimate and enjoyable experiences, from the menacing ones.
Travelling for wellness doesn’t come cheap; according to The Global Wellness Institute, tourists travelling abroad for these trips spend an average of $1,528 per trip, 53% more than typical international tourists. Are these hefty price tags justified? The hyper-marketing of the wellness industry as a whole can encourage excessive spending, arguably over-complicating and commodifying health and wellbeing. Instagram may have us believe that happiness and enlightenment is to be found dressed in head-to-toe lululemon, gazing at pristine alpine landscapes from a downward dog position, but for the majority, this seems a prohibitively high price to pay for wellbeing, accessible only to the affluent. Sure, a trip like this is bound to be good for your health. But when the industry and online spaces posit that spending money on such experiences are a must to be truly ‘well’, is when it starts to get problematic. Remembering the lack of regulation in the industry is important when considering the apparent necessity of wellness travel; essentially, anybody can claim anything under the guise of wellness, whether this is evidence-based, reliant on pseudoscience, or purely made up. Surely, there are much simpler, and cheaper, routes to wellbeing. Is the wellness industry creating a mirage of what is required to secure this?
Wellness tourism is offered as a tonic for the stresses of everyday life. A chance to totally relax, connect with yourself, and rejuvenate, to feel refreshed upon your return to civilisation and work. Of course, these are undoubtedly important endeavours. But could wellness tourism be a sticking plaster solution offered up by capitalism, to treat the problems that it itself has produced? In the context of increasing job precarity, low wages, and large swathes of the working population suffering from stress and poor mental health, people are enticed to spend substantial chunks of their salaries on trips promising to leave them feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, provided with time to work on themselves. Arguably, this reinforces the capitalist rhetoric that everything must be productive in some sense, suggesting that even holidays should be spent self-optimising, whether mind, body, soul, or all three. Getting drunk on piña coladas is apparently no longer sufficient for a holiday. Framed as a silver bullet to the strains of modern life, the wellness tourism industry justifies its often extortionate cost; essentially, it makes money from people who are struggling under the pressure to make money.
That’s not to say the trend is all bad. Clearly, it offers some very real benefits, to the individual traveller, destination communities, and the tourism sector as a whole. The wellness tourism industry shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. As it continues to prosper and become increasingly mainstream, perhaps it will become less of an exclusive affair, with lower-cost experiences emerging in the market, making travelling for wellbeing accessible to all those who wish to do so. What is clear, is that ‘wellness tourism’ is not just a buzzword; its prominence within the tourism sector is definitively here to stay. What we can hope is that the arena will become easier to navigate, separating the genuinely life-enhancing experiences from the harmful and the fabricated.