Practicing health and wellness in our daily lives isn’t enough for many of us — we seek well-being when we travel, too.
Enter: wellness tourism, a concept that the U.S.-based nonprofit organization Global Wellness Institute (GWI) defines as travel associated with the pursuit of maintaining or enhancing overall personal well-being.
It’s important to note that, though “wellness”’ and “well-being” are often interchangeable and related terms, they have slightly different meanings. According to Gallup, wellness is a part of well-being and describes a healthy lifestyle beyond acute illness, whereas both Gallup and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define well-being in a broader life context — feelings of contentment and satisfaction, and positive function in career, social, financial, physical, psychological, and other frameworks — which are important for personal and public health.
Wellness tourism, as a mechanism to support overall well-being, comes in a variety of forms.
For some, it may entail a trip or destination exclusively for wellness purposes, like a yoga retreat in the mountains, and for others, it may involve incorporating healthy habits and experiences into established trips. For example, you might bring your family to a hot spring during your annual vacation, or stop in at a spa for a massage in between sessions at a work conference.
For others still, immersion-based wellness travel, such as a pilgrimage, intensive yoga training, a visit to a humanistic integrative education center (like the nonprofit Esalen Institute), a silent vipassana meditation retreat, or an indigenous-informed plant medicine retreat, may help deepen a spiritual, self-inquiry, or purpose-driven path.
The main point? These types of trips and health-forward activities aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The global wellness tourism market value currently sits at $451 billion, but a 2022 report by Grand View Research reveals that it’s expected to jump to $1.02 trillion by 2030.
Here, we unpack how wellness tourism works, the possible benefits, and how to plan your next health-inspired getaway.
Common Questions & Answers
History of Wellness Tourism
Wellness tourism may be everywhere today, but people have traveled with health or wellness as the primary focus for centuries.
According to Health-Tourism.com, most ancient civilizations recognized the therapeutic benefits of mineral thermal springs, and many built healthcare facilities around them.
Ancient Greek, Egyptian, Roman, Celtic, and Hebrew cultures created health centers that attracted travelers from all over the world, per past research. Baths of different temperatures, swimming pools, exercise rooms, and rooms for massage and other health treatments became a mainstay in Roman culture, according to the World History Encyclopedia. And as early as 5,000 years ago, people trekked to India to seek benefits from Ayurvedic medicine, a holistic approach to physical and mental health.
But while traveling for wellness dates back thousands of years, wellness tourism as a global industry is relatively new, notes the Wellness Tourism Association (WTA).
“In the early 2000s, the spa industry’s marketing message went from ‘pampering’ to ‘prevention’ and that, along with the so-called ‘wellness revolution’ was the beginning [of wellness tourism],” says Anne Dimon, the Denver-based cofounder, president, and CEO of the WTA, and the editor of TraveltoWellness.com.
These days, the wellness-travel offerings are practically endless. Whether your interests lean toward yoga and meditation, spa experiences, weight loss, hiking, or even treatments purported to be customized to your DNA — like the Chenot Palace Weggis health and wellness retreat in the Swiss Alps — there’s a trip to suit your needs.
How Wellness Tourism Works
Do you ever feel like you need a vacation after a vacation? That may not be the case with wellness tourism. Whereas traditional vacations are often busy and stressful, wellness trips aim to relieve stress and promote health, so you can reenter everyday life feeling rejuvenated and grounded.
“[Wellness tourism] provides an opportunity for people to take a break from their lives and focus solely on themselves and their well-being,” says Jeanette Lorandini, LCSW, a New York City–based licensed clinical social worker and the owner of Suffolk DBT. It can allow you to de-stress and relax without any, or few, distractions.
Many people also find that they’re more open to changing their behaviors when they don’t have to worry about everyday responsibilities. “For the most part, people try to make their lives as orderly and predictable as they can, because the less you have to think about your normal day-to-day life, the easier it is to manage,” says Michael Brein, PhD, a travel psychologist living on Bainbridge Island, Washington. “All that goes out the door when you travel.”
Being in an environment where you don’t have to make everyday decisions may allow you to experiment with new behaviors or focus on cultivating ones you’ve neglected. This can help you create healthy habits, like sleeping better, eating well, and exercising daily, that you want to follow once you return home. A small observational study out of Australia, published in the February 2017 Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found weeklong retreat experiences may lead to substantial improvements in multiple dimensions of health and well-being, maintainable for six weeks after the fact.
Plus, many wellness trips provide access to services that can positively affect mental and physical health, such as massage therapy, yoga classes, and nutrition consultations. These experiences can help you return home feeling refreshed and better equipped to handle day-to-day stressors, Lorandini notes.
Many people plan their own wellness-travel experiences, but you can hire a travel adviser if you don’t have time or need to pull it off, or need help finding high-quality options. The WTA offers a member directory where you can find vetted travel advisers who specialize in wellness tourism.
Possible Benefits of Wellness Tourism
Most of the health perks of wellness tourism are anecdotal and can’t be backed up by research. Moreover, existing research primarily focuses on general travel, not wellness tourism. That said, we may be able to pinpoint a few potential benefits of wellness travel.
1. It May Boost Happiness
New experiences and changes in scenery can give some people a mood boost. In a study published in July 2020 in Nature, people with more variability in their day-to-day location tended to be happier. Meanwhile, a past study found that women who vacationed twice a year were less likely to suffer from depression and chronic stress than women who vacationed less frequently.
2. It Provides Lasting Stress Relief
A wellness-inspired getaway enables you to escape the stress of everyday life and focus on activities and experiences that promote well-being. And the stress-relieving benefits of this kind of travel are almost immediate. According to a nonacademic online survey by Expedia referenced in 2018 by the Global Coalition on Aging, 88 percent of U.S. respondents reported feeling more relaxed and less anxious after being on vacation for just a day or two, and the same percentage felt optimistic and positive after a trip.
Time spent disconnected from daily stressful situations can also lower your overall stress once you return home.
Even a short trip (including to local venues) can potentially offer lasting stress relief. In one small study published in 2018 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers had 20 midlevel executives spend four nights in a hotel outside their usual environment, while a control group of 20 spent their vacation at home. While both groups noticed immediate improvements in stress and well-being, the hotel cohort saw greater benefits. What’s more, the positive effects could still be felt 45 days post-vacation.
3. It May Improve Heart Health
The stress-lowering effects of travel may have benefits for your heart.
In a past study, middle-aged men at high risk for heart disease who reported that they had taken a vacation in the past year were 17 percent less likely to have passed away than men who hadn’t traveled, in research conducted over a nine-year period.
That said, the authors of the aforementioned study note that, while vacations may improve heart health by lowering stress, it may be that healthier people are more likely to travel. More research is needed to determine if and how travel benefits the heart and mortality risk. If you have a heart condition, be sure to consult your physician before you take a trip.
4. It May Enhance Brain Health
Exposure to new behaviors and environments through travel may stimulate the brain in new ways, potentially helping you stay sharp, according to the report from the Global Coalition on Aging.
In fact, when the authors of a past study followed more than 2,000 older adults for three years, they found that those who regularly participated in social or leisure activities, such as traveling, had a lower risk of dementia. According to the CDC, dementia is a general term for when the impaired ability to remember, think, or make decisions interferes with everyday life. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, and it mostly affects older adults, per the CDC.
Access to Wellness Tourism
Wellness tourism can be expensive — for example, a seven-day stay at the Chenot Palace Weggis health and wellness retreat starts at $5,722, and tuition at Esalen Institute varies from $540 to $8,000 depending upon accommodation choice and workshop fees. But there are plenty of budget-friendly wellness-travel options out there, Dimon says. Just keep in mind that what’s considered affordable to one traveler may not be to another.
When searching for affordable wellness retreats and other health-inspired travel options, be sure to factor in transportation (airfare, train fare, car rental). Staying closer to home can cut down on your expenses significantly, and as mentioned above, even getting away on a local trip brings possible health benefits.
Depending on where you stay and what you do, you may also save money by designing your own wellness vacation; no rule says you have to sign up for a weeklong all-inclusive trip. “Think about it,” Dimon says, “Someone could enjoy a self-guided wellness vacation at a three-star hotel, reading, relaxing, walking in nature, making healthy food choices, getting a good night’s sleep, and simply being away from the stress of their everyday lives.”
Creativity and wellness tourism go hand in hand. With endless options available, you can craft a wellness trip to fit any budget.
How to Make the Most of Your Next Wellness Trip
Follow these expert tips for preparing for and winding down from your wellness travel adventures so you can maximize the benefits of taking precious time off.
Before You Go
- Set a goal Give yourself a goal to focus on during your trip. This way, you can plan your trip around that goal and maximize your time, Cifaldi says. You can also think about how you want to feel after returning home “and use that as inspiration when planning activities or experiences during your stay,” Lorandini says.
- Plan logistics. Whether you’ve scheduled an all-inclusive experience or you’re DIY-ing, some logistics will be involved. “Read up on the different activities and services available at the destination so you can make informed decisions about how to spend your time there,” Lorandini says. Plan as many logistics as possible beforehand so you don’t have to worry about them during your trip. For example, if you’re doing a self-guided vacation, come up with a list of healthy food restaurants or grocery stores near your place of stay.
- Get support. Can any friends or family members help with everyday responsibilities (childcare, pet-sitting, plant-watering) while you’re gone? Can your coworkers cover for you while you’re gone? Having a support system in place to handle routine tasks allows you to stay present and relaxed during your trip, Cifaldi notes.
- Practice self-care. Preparing for a trip can be stressful, but try to take care of yourself mentally and physically in the days leading up to your departure. This means eating nutritious meals, getting enough sleep, practicing relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation, and exercising, Lorandini says.
After You Get Back
- Reflect: Go easy upon reentering everyday life. Take some time to let the experiences you had on your trip soak in. “Journaling about your experiences can be a great way to process all you learned and hold onto those feelings of relaxation and well-being,” Lorandini says.
- Change your environment. Continue your wellness journey once you return home by tweaking your environment to encourage the healthy habits you practiced on your trip. “You might clean out your pantry to include more health-friendly options or find a space in your home to dedicate to a daily meditation practice,” Cifaldi says.
- Find a community. Connect with people who share your wellness interests. Cifaldi suggests starting with group wellness or fitness classes. You may meet people who are walking a similar well-being path and can support you along your journey, she says.
Wellness Tourism Resources We Love
Global Wellness Institute (GWI)
This nonprofit organization advocates for preventative health and wellness worldwide. The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) collects industry research, leads international roundtables, supports wellness initiatives, and offers an online resource where you can find medical evidence for mainstream wellness approaches. Find information about wellness tourism on their website and sign up for email updates.
U.S. Travel Association
The U.S. Travel Association is a national nonprofit organization representing the travel industry. Made up of more than 1,100 member organizations, they work to grow and sustain travel to and within the United States. They offer research, news, and commentary to keep you informed while you plan your trip.
Media and Planning
Wellness Tourism Association (WTA)
Launched in January 2018, the Wellness Tourism Association (WTA) is a global network of destination management organizations (DMOs), hotels, tour operators, travel advisers, wellness practitioners, and media. The WTA is a great place to search for wellness retreats, destinations, and travel advisers. Browse their directory for options.
Travel to Wellness
Travel to Wellness is an online wellness travel magazine founded by Anne Dimon in 2004. Here, you’ll find reviews of wellness offerings, everyday wellness tips, roundups of retreats and vacations, product recommendations, and firsthand travel accounts. Stay updated with their email newsletter and start your trip search with the 2023 wellness retreat guide.
Suite Dreams Travel
Hosted by the wellness travel planner Barbara Tuckett, the Suite Dreams Travel podcast covers various topics. You'll find episodes on must-see sights, travel reviews, what makes wellness travel different from other vacations, and how to handle travel stressors like canceled flights.
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