Wellness Tourism is a Growth Opportunity Worldwide


Ask individuals how healthy they feel when traveling, and you’re more likely to hear a litany of complaints than a list of benefits. Even when we take a vacation to unwind, jet lag, missing sleep, unhealthy meals, and disrupted exercise routines are side effects of the way we travel, whether for business or for pleasure.

Now there’s a growing movement to change travel to include healthy activities and options: “Wellness Tourism.” SRI International, working with the Global Spa and Wellness Summit, has for the first time conducted an extensive study to define Wellness Tourism and to measure the size of the market.

Let’s first agree on what Wellness Tourism is not. It isn’t medical tourism, where people travel to other countries to receive discounted medical care or procedures that aren’t available in the United States. Nor is it simply super-expensive stays in exclusive spas that are mainly for the ultra-wealthy. It instead encompasses two types of trips available on a more global scale. Some travelers take trips specifically to maintain and improve their health, while others want to keep up with their healthy habits when they travel for business or pleasure. Stated quite simply, Wellness Tourism is “travel associated with the pursuit of maintaining or enhancing one’s personal wellbeing.”

And while this might seem like an obvious distinction, it is becoming more important to individuals across all segments of the travel industry. Many tourists plan their travels specifically for wellness activities—visiting spas, health resorts, baths and springs, but also yoga retreats, national parks, gyms and fitness centers, and even specialty restaurants.

However, what surprised us in our research was that that secondary-purpose wellness travelers—those whose primary purpose of their travel is not for wellness programs but who seek those types of activities during their trips—make up a much larger proportion of the market, accounting for 85 percent of all wellness trips and expenditures. While it’s not the sole purpose of their trip, these travelers have an interest in maintaining wellness during travel. This can range from finding a hotel with a healthy menu and extensive exercise facilities to a person who spends a day at the spa during a ski vacation. And it includes a tourist visiting India mainly with a cultural interest, but who also visits an ayurveda center or takes a few yoga classes. The Huffington Post recently wrote about the growing travel to India in pursuit of wellness programs.

Our research findings put this trend into perspective. While measuring the size of any industry is always a challenge, we were able to estimate the number of wellness tourists by country and aggregate their expenditures.  In total, we estimate that the global wellness tourism economy is worth nearly $440 billion and accounts for roughly 14 percent of global tourism expenditures. It directly creates 12 million jobs around the world and has a total economic impact of $1.3 trillion when multiplied economic impacts are included. Not surprisingly, wellness tourism is a rather large segment, similar in size to ecotourism and culinary tourism, but bigger than sports tourism and medical tourism.

More and more, these niche markets do not operate independently of each other—a wellness tourist can be simultaneously an ecotourist, a cultural tourist, and a sports tourist. There are many opportunities to cross-market niche tourism products to these potential customers.

And while the 525 million trips made by wellness travelers represent only 6 percent of all tourism trips, they account for 14 percent of all tourism spending. Wellness travelers tend to be wealthier, have achieved a higher level of education, and spend more per trip on average. For example, an international tourist on average spends $1,000 per trip (not including international air travel), while an international wellness tourist spends 65 percent more. The differential between an average domestic traveler and a wellness traveler is even greater, with domestic wellness travelers spending 2.5 times the average domestic tourist per trip.

Wellness Tourism is clearly a growing market for the tourism industry. Industry executives would be well-advised to offer services and options that meet the wellness travelers’ needs. Already, a number of hotel brands are doing just that, with healthy rooms, better meals, well-equipped fitness centers, and even yoga classes. It’s a trend worth paying attention to. And don’t be surprised when an airline brands itself as the No. 1 “fly healthy” carrier to target this travel segment.

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