More travelers make wellness a priority
Chinese tourists are increasingly exploring options that combine health with their holiday experience
As the serene northern city of Chiang Mai, Thailand, stirs from its slumber and the first wisp of sunlight shines on the famous Buddhist temple Wat Phra Singh, Lin Yi is ready to begin his early morning run.
“The feeling you get when you run through the temple at dawn is far beyond what you might experience at peak hours when all the tourist groups have arrived,” says Lin, head of overseas business for Beijingbased Chinese travel information website Qyer. For quite a few years now, he has made running a part of his travel routine.
“As you run, you can see the daily lives of monks as they sweep the floors, make breakfast and prepare to chant. This is something you can only see in the early morning. And you also feel refreshed from running. A 30-minute jog will let me see a lot of interesting things,” he says.
Lin’s inclination for a taste of wellness during travel is becoming increasingly common among Chinese globetrotters. Since 2013, China has continued to move up in the rankings for wellness tourism spending, and is now third, after the United States and Germany.
It is also the growth leader as it has adding more than 21 million inbound and domestic wellness trips from 2015 to 2017, according to the latest report published by the Global Wellness Institute in October.
Seeking a sense of wellness is an inevitable stage as the way of traveling changes, says Lin. He says the focus of Chinese tourists has been changed from a “tick the box” approach of taking photos at mustsee attractions to experiencing local lifestyles, as it is now much easier for the up-and-coming middle class to travel abroad.
To cope with the rising demand, Qyer now offers a series of themed tourism packages featuring hiking, cycling, skiing and yoga in popular destinations, including Japan, Thailand, Canada, New Zealand and countries across Europe. Since the launch of the programs three years ago, inquiries for wellness tourism have grown 40 percent annually.
But Lin says the wellness tourism market in China is still in its infancy compared with more mature markets like Europe and the United States.
Globally, wellness tourism is now recognized as a significant and fastgrowing tourism segment, according to GWI, reaching a market size of $639.4 billion (563 billion euros; £506.8 billion) in 2017. With an annual growth rate of 6.5 percent, the sector is growing more than twice as fast as tourism generally.
The market has drawn attention from players both inside and outside the wider tourism sector.
The Hotel Jen Beijing, launched by Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts in May last year, is equipped with a 3,500-square-meter health club that offers group classes, cardio machines, a mixed martial arts area and more.
Meanwhile, in 2019, luxury fitness club Equinox will launch its first hotel in New York City with the intention to expand. The aim is to integrate “the science of fitness” into the travel experience.
“As a segment of the tourism industry, wellness tourism benefits from a global trend of rising consumer awareness of, and interest in, health and wellness,” says Ophelia Yeung, senior research fellow at GWI. “More people are also looking for experiential travel, and wellness is all about the experience.”
While Europe and North America lead, respectively, in the number of wellness trips and in spending, the GWI report shows that it is Asia that has made the greatest gains in the past five years in both areas.
Yeung attributes the rapid growth to the fast-rising sophistication of Asian travelers and their ability to pay for higher-quality travel, as well as the growing awareness of improving health while on vacation.
“Worsening environmental pollution and congestion in Asia make people look for sanctuaries, fresh air and nature during their holidays,” Yeung says.
“For consumers from Western countries, Asia is the place for holistic treatments,” says Brian King, associate dean and a professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management.
“Asia has a long-established history of holistic therapies, some associated with religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, notably Ayurvedic treatments, yoga and Chinese medicine. ... Hence it may be considered a competitive advantage that Asian destinations can offer guests such experiences,” King says.
Ayurvedic is a traditional system of medicine that derives from India.
In addition, GWI’s Yeung says Asia has the advantage of a large and growing intraregional market, and will benefit from increasing shorthaul vacation trips within the region, especially when more consumers regard travel not as a luxury but an essential component of their lives.
Yeung says it is important to promote wellness tourism because wellness travelers tend to spend more than the average tourist. And the economic benefits they bring can potentially mitigate the impacts of “overtourism” suffered by many destinations,while also smoothing out seasonal spikes in visitors.
“Wellness tourism brings visitors who are interested in experiencing authentic culture — more than visiting popular destinations for photo ops and shopping — and tends to increase human interaction, for example, with therapists, teachers, healers, guides and so on, which can create more opportunities for small businesses and employment,” says Yeung.
The business value of wellness tourism products is also higher, as better services and a deeper understanding of a destination are required.
“The price of such products can be twice that of a regular travel package, because it is highly customized … but our users are willing to pay more for these products and their special features,” says Lin from Qyer.
GWI’s Yeung says there is “sometimes a tendency to conflate wellness tourism with medical tourism, especially when destinations or governments use the term ‘health tourism’ to cover both sectors”.
Unlike the latter, which primarily involves people who are seeking medical treatments and procedures, wellness tourism involves travelers who are primarily interested in wellness — “the pursuit of maintaining or enhancing one’s personal wellbeing” — on their trip, Yeung said.
Noting that there is a long history of connection between health and tourism, King from PolyU says the next phase of development will involve multiple collaborations between the two sectors, which can bring opportunities but at the same time will demand new skills and approaches.
“It is not just about avoiding surgery or medications. There is also a strong desire for an enhanced quality of life, personal fulfillment and happiness,” says Karina Stewart, co-founder of Kamalaya, a resort on the island of Koh Samui in southern Thailand. Kamalaya was opened in 2005, so Stewart is aware of the rapid development of the wellness tourism industry over the last decade.
In May, Kamalaya brought its award-winning wellness treatments to European clients through its collaboration with the UK hotel Lime Wood in the English countryside of Hampshire.
So-called mini retreats include holistic therapies and treatment from both Eastern and Western perspectives, alongside healthy cuisine, personal mentoring, cooking classes, early morning yoga and meditative walks in the forest. Stewart says she already has plans to continue this collaboration next year and is open to extending it to other places in the world.
As a resort owner, Stewart says, the wellness experience should not just be about quick fixes but how to make it sustainable — something the guests can take back home after their vacations. To do this, Kamalaya aims to give guests the knowledge and tools necessary to make life-enhancing choices that are viable for the long term.
For example, the resort encourages visitors to write down their experiences and think about whether any of the activities can be incorporated into their daily routines.
“Our philosophy is that by supporting people in making small but permanent changes, they will feel inspired to continue making positive progress after they return home,” Stewart says.
King at PolyU believes tourism “has a valuable role to play in positive psychology”.
“Travel experiences can take people from their daily concerns and provide optimism, challenge and refreshment. In Asia, holistic philosophies emanating from Confucianism, Buddhism and other traditions are a welcome balancing force to materialism,” King says.
China aims to build a group of international wellness tourism destinations by 2020, as reported by Xinhua. Yonhap News reported in May that South Korea plans to promote its southern region as a cluster for wellness travel, with an investment of $742,000 in the development of tourism programs.
Cities and regional governments have important roles to play in promoting wellness tourism, says Yeung from GWI, noting that regulatory authorities are important for ensuring that wellness amenities and services meet international standards. Destinations should also reflect “wellness” in a broader sense, not only within a resort property but in public places and the overall environment, Yeung says.
Meanwhile, Lin from Qyer hopes to convey the idea of wellness tourism to more users on the company’s platform.
The idea is to encourage people to catch a new vision — that integrating physical activities into vacations can unlock a whole new kind of travel experience.