The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns have had a significant impact on travellers’ mental health, which has led to an increased demand for valuable wellness tourism experiences.
“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there's been a pronounced shift towards health and wellbeing among tourists,” Rob Kucera, GM of Radisson Blu Hotel & Convention Centre in Kigali, and District Director for East Africa at Radisson Hotel Group, told Tourism Update.
The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) defines wellness tourism as “travel associated with the pursuit of maintaining or enhancing one’s personal wellbeing”.
The GWI’s latest report on the global wellness economy includes positive new data on the wellness travel market.
In the pre-pandemic year of 2019, the global wellness tourism market reached a record US$720bn, but then took a big hit in the pandemic year of 2020, falling to US$436bn.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s wellness tourism industry was estimated at around US$81.7bn in 2019.
The future of this tourism subsector looks very promising. Last year, the GWI projected that the market would reach US$817bn in 2022, and soar to US$1.3trn by 2025.
“The wellness tourism market is demonstrating the fastest growth rate of any tourism market through 2025,” the GWI said.
“With so much unwellness embedded in today’s travel, wellness tourism brings the promise of combating those negative qualities and turning travel into an opportunity to maintain and improve our holistic health.”
Not the same as medical tourism
Wellness tourism is often confused with medical tourism – not only by consumers, but also in destination marketing.
“This confusion is caused by an incomplete understanding of these markets and inconsistent usage of terminologies by destinations, government organisations and promotion agencies. Sometimes the term ‘health tourism’ is also used as a catch-all to describe many types of medical and wellness services and activities – from open heart surgery and dental care to destination spas and yoga retreats – causing further confusion,” the GWI said.
The wellness tourist
There is a common misconception that wellness travellers are a small, elite and wealthy group of leisure tourists who visit destination spas, health resorts, or yoga and meditation retreats.
“Wellness travellers comprise a much broader and more diverse group of consumers with many motivations, interests and values,” the GWI said.
Wellness travellers are looking to continue their wellness lifestyle during travel, and this lifestyle may encompass healthy eating, exercise/fitness routines, mind-body practices, nature experiences, and connections with local people and culture.
“This then creates more opportunities for businesses such as yoga studios, gyms and fitness centres, health food stores/markets, events, arts and crafts, museums and many others within and around tourism establishments to thrive,” the GWI said.
Suzanne Benadie, Sales Director at Tourvest Destination Management's leading African inbound leisure travel brand Sense of Africa, added that wellness travellers were looking for a digital detox, to connect with nature, big open spaces and responsible community involvement.
What SA has to offer
Dr Nadine de Freitas, Executive Director of the South African Spa Association, told Tourism Update that wellness tourism had gained immense popularity in recent years, with travellers seeking relaxation, rejuvenation, and self-care experiences.
“South Africa, known for its stunning landscapes, diverse cultures, and rich wildlife, has emerged as a top destination for wellness seekers. From luxurious spas and wellness retreats nestled in serene natural surroundings to yoga and meditation retreats, South Africa caters for the growing demand for holistic wellness experiences,” said De Freitas.
“While wellness tourism encompasses a broader and more immersive approach to well-being, a day spa visit to one of our over 1 200 day or hotel spas nationally, offers a comprehensive wellness experience to be celebrated and enjoyed.”
De Freitas said South Africa’s top wellness offerings included natural wonders and retreats; indigenous healing traditions; yoga and meditation; combining safari and wellness; spa and wellness resorts; wellness-focused cuisine; mindful adventure activities; and sustainable and responsible tourism.
Kucera said one trend that had garnered significant attention among wellness travellers was the desire for more immersive wellness experiences.
“This entails wellness retreats or spa vacations that offer more than just a standard massage or yoga class, but instead provide a comprehensive wellness experience.”
Another trend that has been observed is the growing focus on mental health and wellness.
“More and more individuals are turning towards activities such as mindfulness meditation and therapy sessions to enhance their mental wellbeing.”
Furthermore, there is a rising trend towards eco-friendly and sustainable wellness practices.
“This encompasses opting for accommodations that are powered by renewable energy, and consuming locally sourced, organic food,” Kucera concluded.