More Than Massages: Unpacking the Wellness Travel Boom

Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley
Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley

Relaxing poolside is out. Deep self-improvement is in. Kate Symons investigates the wellness tourism boom and explores where the industry is headed from here.

“Breathing in: one, two, three, four. And out: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.”

I am trying to follow Brandon’s instructions, but my ever-wandering mind continues to find its way back to my car, which was forced to make a surprise visit to the mechanic on my way out of Sydney 48 hours earlier.

I shake it off and bring my attention back to Brandon’s soft voice. With the best of intentions, I breath in: one, two, three, ‘for-god’s-sake, will my car be okay?’

This is not going how I had planned. I am staying at HOSHINOYA Tokyo, a heavenly property in the city’s financial heart, where beautifully composed Japanese hospitality whisks guests well away from the bustle of street level. The deep-breathing stretch class I am attending is offered each morning, giving guests the opportunity to balance the mind and body. I figure I could do with a good recalibration and the statistics tell me I am not alone.

Despite the conveniences of modern life, we are more stressed than ever before with work pressures, lack of sleep, social media and juggling too many things at once among the key contributing factors. And while lazing poolside may have once reigned as the rejuvenation method of choice, travellers are increasingly seeking more meaningful results from their holidays. Case in point: wellness tourism grew by 6.5 per cent annually from 2015 to 2017, more than twice as fast as tourism overall.

Hey, Big Spender

This is big business, and Karina Stewart saw it coming. Karina and her husband John established Kamalaya Koh Samui in 2005, a wellness retreat motivated by a shared passion for holistic wellbeing. And although they suspected they were “on the cutting-edge of something”, it wasn’t the projected boom that was in their sights. Rather, the couple set out to offer guests a deep and authentic healing experience by combining the best of both Eastern and Western therapies.

“Our sense was ‘build it and they will come’ [but] it was this uphill battle [getting investors] because no-one else could feel it then.”

They can now. In 2017, world travellers made 830 million international and domestic wellness trips, accounting for 17 per cent of all tourism expenditure. Moreover, the $639 billion market (2017) is projected to reach $919 billion by 2022.

The explosion is a natural progression of the thriving wellness economy, estimated by the Global Wellness Institute as a $4.2 trillion industry and representing about 5.3 per cent of global economic output in 2017. 

Samantha Lippiatt, director of wellness holiday specialists Health & Fitness Travel, says the growing pursuit of holistic health has simply crossed over to the tourism setting.

“Holistic healthcare and disease prevention are increasingly at the centre of consumer decision-making, and people now expect to continue their healthier lifestyles when they are away from home,” she says.

“Consumers are also seeking a more experiential form of travelling, which is what wellness tourism is about — a personal experience that not only resonates with the traveller’s aspirations but helps them achieve their goals.”

This trend is visible across all demographics, but Millennials in particular are driving growth. The largest generation by population, Millennials – those born between 1980 and 1996 – are lifestyle-focused and, according to Eventbrite data, 78 per cent choose to spend money on experiences rather than material goods.

When it comes to wellness tourism specifically, the demographic broadens. Samantha says the primary audience is time-poor Generation Xers (born between 1965 and 1979) and most are female (74 per cent), but she adds: “Wellness tourism attracts a clientele of burnt-out professionals of all ages, families seeking healthy or active travel alternatives, and Baby Boomers focused on a later-life health reboot as they head into retirement.”

At Kamalaya, the ‘burnt-out’ profile rings particularly true. Fifteen years after opening its doors, the Thai retreat remains a leader in the industry, despite the influx of competitors. In that time, the retreat’s catalogue of programs has grown from five to 14, a steady increase that has been based purely on guests’ needs.

“We don’t just create something for the sake of creating it,” Karina says. “We respond to what we’re seeing, [to] the changes in our guest profile.” In 2005, detox was the program du jour at Kamalaya and although it remains one of the best-sellers, Karina says there has been a significant shift towards mental health and emotional balance.

“We started developing our stress and burnout category of programs because I saw the need… and I would say that’s one of the biggest changes [since we opened].”

Kamalaya now offers four stress and burnout programs – Relax and Renew, Asian Bliss, Basic Balance and Revitalise, and Comprehensive Balance and Revitalise – and they are among the most sought-after. Meanwhile, the retreat’s emotional balance program, Embracing Change, which launched in 2014, is fast gaining popularity.

The pattern is similar on Australian soil. Sharon Kolkka, General Manager and Wellness Director at Gwinganna, an award-winning retreat located in the Gold Coast hinterland, says the most common thread connecting guests is that they are “exhausted by life”.

On the upside, the stigma surrounding self-care and mental health is starting to fade.

“I think people are more open to coming to a place like this now because the word ‘wellness’ is accessible,” Sharon says. “If you’re choosing a place like this, it doesn’t mean to say that something is broken… people are engaging for various reasons.

“At a wellness retreat or a lifestyle retreat, we’re steeped in wellness, we’re about supporting people to live well in their life and to perform well in their life. That’s what we do.”

Breaking New Ground

Predictably, as the wellness uptake increases, so does consumer expectation, paving the way for unique and, at times, groundbreaking new offerings. Take fitness, for example. No longer satisfied with the standard resort pool and gym, consumers are now demanding intensive programs, celebrity-endorsed experiences and inventive fitness challenges.

In New York City, gym chain Equinox opened its first fitness hotel earlier this year. Complete with a 556-square-metre workout space, the hotel is described (on its own website) as a “manifestation of high-performance living”. Who’s to argue when cryotherapy chambers, an on-call sleep coach and a minibar stocked with wellness goodies (think: face masks, sleep supplements and superfood snacks) are part of the package?

Anna Kaiser, the woman responsible for the incredible body tone of Sarah Jessica Parker, Karlie Kloss and Shakira, among other A-listers, is just one celebrity trainer to create a retreat version of her fitness product. Brands are also getting in on the act. Cult activewear retailer Lululemon, for example, launched The Immersion last year, a five-day yoga and personal development retreat held in Malibu.

In Thailand, at Thanyapura Health & Sports Resort, guests can train like elite athletes across various disciplines, with help from integrative health care and expert coaching. Closer to home, Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley in the NSW Blue Mountains has recently launched the Wolgan Warrior Adventure Challenge, an exclusive 21-kilometre trail run available to only 10 guests each month. It is a change of pace for the conservation-based nature resort, but is certainly in keeping with industry trends.

If consumers are seeking healthier travel experiences, then it stands to reason they would also welcome healthier travel. To that end, wellness is already infiltrating the journey itself. Airports around the world are increasingly equipped with fitness and wellness services. Be Relax spas, located in more than 52 airports across the USA, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, offer relaxation and beauty treatments; ROAM Fitness, a gym and wellness centre located behind security at Baltimore/ Washington International Airport, has plans to expand across the US; and Sanctifly is a game-changing app that grants air travellers access to nearby health and fitness services, including airport hotel facilities, while in transit.

In-flight health programs could also be en route. A modular plane design, created at Airbus’s Silicon Valley outpost, A³, would allow aircraft to be quickly and easily customised and includes cabin modules such as a spa, a yoga studio and a gym. For now, though, in-flight stretches and aisle walks will have to suffice.

Wellness is also being elevated where it was once merely an afterthought. In-room yoga mats, health-focused menus and sleep aids are among the myriad touches working their way into mainstream hotels. InterContinental Hotel Group launched EVEN Hotels, an offshoot chain designed to meet the needs of wellness-minded travellers, in 2012. In the same year, Westin Hotels and Resorts launched its RunWestin program, providing guests with scenic running routes and a unique sneaker-lending program.

“No longer satisfied with the standard resort pool and gym, consumers are now demanding intensive programs, celebrity-endorsed experiences and inventive fitness challenges.”

Ageing Gracefully

Such initiatives, and their proliferation, aren’t just good for guests, they’re good for society. Some (detox-friendly) food for thought: globally, the population aged 65 and over is growing faster than all other age groups; healthcare costs are rising faster than GDP in most developed countries; and the United Nations has predicted a global health-worker shortfall of 18 million by 2030.

Healthy ageing has never been more critical and this, according to Sharon, is one reason why wellness is here to stay. “What we’re doing [at Gwinganna] is not rocket science,” she says.

“What we’re doing is we’re capturing information, we’re sharing that information and we’re focusing our attention on a how our human health is impacted by a lifestyle.

“Will that become mainstream? I think it has to because we’ve got an ageing population and in that ageing population we are going to have more old people than we’ll have younger people, which essentially means the economy will not float unless all those people are functioning.”

In a saturated wellness market, it can be challenging to choose the right wellness provider. There is currently no regulating body or certifications to help, but there are industry awards that usually point travellers in the right direction.

No stranger to such accolades, Karina suggests conducting some research before booking a new health retreat and ensuring staff hold the appropriate experience and, where necessary, qualifications.

“Any time something catches on… and becomes a hot trend, so to speak, there are always people who are opportunists and they will use the right language and they will use the right imagery and they will use all those things,” she says.

“You have to look at the depth and quality of the people behind the wellness component. Is there depth? Is there know-how? Ask those questions because I know of… places throughout the world where… they get hold of an idea and they implement it and it’s kind of faddish and you can really hurt your health.”

At Kamalaya, where treatments can include reflexology, sound healing, reiki, Japanese acupuncture, blue light energy healing, craniosacral balancing, kinesiology, cognitive behavioural therapy – the list really does go on – programs are tailored to the specific needs of guests.

Similarly, Gwinganna is broad yet focused, and openmindedness is a true asset for both staff and guests.

“It is a privilege to be involved in people’s lives in this way, but it’s also really important for me and my team to maintain a nonjudgmental approach,” explains Sharon. “We’re all about trying to keep a human body healthy [and] it’s not like the people who work at a health retreat are immune to the challenges and temptations of life. We’re all in it together.”

Fun Facts


The number of international and domestic wellness trips made by world travellers in 2017, accounting for 17 per cent of all tourism expenditure.


of Millennials choose to spend money on experiences rather than material goods, according to Eventbrite data.


The distance of One&Only’s exclusive Wolgan Warrior Adventure Challenge trail run, available to only 10 guests each month.


The global health-worker shortfall by 2030, as predicted by the United Nations.

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