The rise of wellness travel, from rewilding to yoga and pilgrimages

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This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

The number of people concerned about their health and wellbeing has rocketed since the pandemic began. The stats are legion but among them, 80% of those surveyed by Public Health England in 2020 — in the first year of Covid-19 — reported wanting to change their lifestyle in 2021 to become healthier. Meanwhile, an Ipsos study in 2021 noted that 62% of Americans believe health is more important to them than before the pandemic. And this has, as countless more reports will attest, changed the way many of us want to travel.

Just over a fifth (21%) of global travellers are currently travelling for health- and wellness-driven reasons according to the 2022 Travel Trends research by luxury travel network Virtuoso, conducted jointly with YouGov. And its findings suggest this is likely to grow in 2023, with 29% of global travellers stating interest in travelling for wellness reasons in the future. Trends include travel to reconnect — with friends, family, partners or children — and a growing focus on sleep wellness. The research notes ‘the rise in apps like Calm and Headspace permeating travel products, providing flyers the ability to plug in and meditate while in flight’ — not to mention the growing number of sleep retreats aimed at aiding insomniacs.

“Health and wellness technology is moving forward at a very fast pace and creating exciting new possibilities that we’re exploring, from sleep therapy and guided meditation to dynamic bathing, cryotherapy and infrared saunas,” says Emlyn Brown, vice president of wellbeing at Accor, Europe’s largest hospitality and hotels company, which released the Health to Wealth white paper earlier this year.

“Guests now come to us loaded with their own health data,” says Brown of the ubiquity of smartwatches and fitness apps. “We’re exploring ways that we can create bespoke wellness experiences for our guests in spa, nutrition, fitness and sleep.” Accor’s Fairmont Windsor Park hotel, for example, is home to the UK’s first spa multi-person cryotherapy chamber. Hotels Pullman Paris Centre-Bercy and Pullman San Francisco Bay, meanwhile, equip guests with Dreem, a technology wearable that monitors breathing, brain waves, heart rate and sleeping patterns.

Rewilding in Sweden offers a chance to unwind and reset.

Wellness travel is clearly no longer something that’s confined to the spa, but it’s travelled far beyond the hotel, too. “Wellness travel has evolved and expanded to encapsulate all manner of experiences that boost travellers’ mental and physical health,” says Paul Joseph, founder of Health and Fitness Travel, a specialist tour operator for wellness breaks. “Far from the ‘fly and flop’ wellness holidays of old, we’re able to send customers on a hand-picked retreat that includes a tailored wellness programme — from personalised nutrition and exercise plans to one-on-one coaching and holistic healing therapies. Following the pandemic and in spite of the cost-of-living crisis, we’ve seen a marked increase in bookings.”

It’s what Expedia is calling a ‘no-normal’ era of wellness travel. “We’re seeing a new wave of interest in wellness retreats, and a spike in demand for outdoor destinations beyond beaches and mountains,” says Jon Gieselman, president of Expedia Brands. “Not a new normal, but people branching out to unexpected trends: the ‘no-normal’.”

The travel brand has seen a 30% increase in demand for wellness breaks between 2021 and 2022, and found that almost half (46%) of global travellers are more open to wellness breaks than ever before. And the quirkier, the better. Expedia’s Travel Trends report reveals activities as diverse as sylvotherapy (forest bathing), food bootcamps, chakra sessions, puppy yoga and laughter therapy were more popular than some standard spa offerings.

So, what exactly does ‘wellness’ mean today? According to the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) — the US-non-profit offshoot of the Global Wellness Summit, which has been driving research and business across the industry since 2007 — the term is varied. It can be associated with fitness holidays and adventure travel focused around improving a sense of wellbeing or life balance, along with the obvious mind and body retreats. And it’s a booming sector. GWI projects a 9.9% average annual growth in the wellness economy between now and 2025, when it will reach nearly $7 trillion (£5.5 trillion).

Meanwhile, US-based non-profit the Wellness Tourism Association (WTA) was founded in 2018 with the aim of bringing standards to the growing wellness sector of the tourism industry, and defines wellness travel as simply that which allows the traveller ‘to maintain, enhance or kick-start a healthy lifestyle, and support or increase one’s sense of wellbeing’.

“What constitutes a wellbeing holiday is subjective,” says Justin Francis, co-founder and CEO of activist holiday company Responsible Travel. “I’d say a painting holiday in the Scottish Highlands or a wild camping experience can be as much about wellness as a vegan Pilates retreat. Wellness holidays simply allow you to rest and revive in your own way, mentally and physically.”

The company has added numerous nature-based holidays to its offering since the pandemic, in response to rising demand. It notes that activities like river kayaking are becoming more popular, and that interest in trips that give customers a chance to really focus on their physical wellbeing has risen almost 100% in the last five years. “We’re all much more attuned to the benefits of switching off our phones and being outdoors,” says Francis.

Active relaxation

It’s clear that well before the pandemic hit, our travel habits were changing. A McKinsey report in 2021 noted that 79% of respondents believed wellness was important, and 42% considered it a top priority, but in the preceding two to three years consumers in every market it researched reported a substantial increase (from 27% to 65%) in the prioritisation of wellness. Within the last decade, yoga mats have become the norm in hip hotels and gym access a hospitality standard, while spa-focused accommodation is ever-expanding.

Sports travel, with its tangible benefits and measurable outcomes — such as the number of miles hiked — is a thriving area of wellness. This boom in so-called ‘endorphin tourism’ attracts travellers seeking trips that give them a natural high — from desert marathons to trail running in the mountains. In Europe, the Alps have become something of an outdoor wellness playground. A 2020 report for France Montagnes, an association promoting French Alpine tourism, states that up to 70% of travellers see the mountains as a synonym for wellness.

“For several years now, and particularly since the post-Covid period, the mountains have been popular with visitors looking for an escape, nature and wellbeing, alongside more sporting activities,” says association president Jean-Luc Boch. The activities on offer range from the expectedly athletic to such specialisms as communing with nature while learning how to herd goats, meditative waterfall bathing, guided foraging for medicinal plants and mindful marathon running.

Cycling holidays have also boomed, with weekend/leisure bikers increasing between 30% and 60% across the UK and Europe between 2019 and 2022, according to European Parliament estimates. And surfing is seeing similar spikes in popularity. The International Surfing Association reported that around 35 million people surf worldwide, a figure it forecast to rise to 50 million by 2020, though it’s yet to release numbers. Whatever that number is, it looks set to increase further if the NHS starts adding to its ‘green prescriptions’ — issued for people to improve their mental and physical health by spending time outdoors in nature — by prescribing surfing as a treatment. A 2022 trial by select NHS trusts in England looked into the benefits of surfing for young adults with mental health issues.

Wellness travel isn’t just about meditative activities — many seek ways to get their bodies moving, too.

Our increased state of ‘permanxiety’, be it fuelled by the stresses of modern life, lack of access to nature, economic instability, political turmoil or climate change, may be alleviated by travelling to immerse ourselves in the natural world, be it forest bathing, cold water swimming or mindful hiking. Travel, it seems, can be a proposition for salvation, not least among the booming number of people making pilgrimages. Both mainstream walking-tour operators and religious organisations are reporting soaring interest in such popular routes as the Camino de Santiago, with pilgrimages offering the chance for a hike to connect with yourself with others and with nature, even if religious beliefs don’t come into play.

But for some, this is exactly what travel, at its best, has always been about. Wellness was not something you singled out, found in a spa or were prescribed, but was about finding yourself out in the world, making connections with others or spending time in the great outdoors. Wellness was integral to the kind of travel that happened as slowly as time and money allowed, staying local, exploring on foot. Walking, for one, is something British travellers have long seen as vital to their health and wellbeing. Ramblers, a charity founded in the wake of the 1932 mass trespass on the Duke of Devonshire’s Kinder Scout grouse moors in Derbyshire, has received lottery funding in recent years for its Walking for Health initiative. The programme has seen some 70,000 people discover the benefits of a hike.

For many of us, working from home or a hybrid approach to work life has simply allowed more opportunities to do the things we enjoy. And the travel industry has responded with almost limitless options. Wellness has even infiltrated the traditional sand and sea resort-based breaks. Package tour operator On the Beach, for example, has curated a list of ‘dopamine-inducing’ destinations — places that boost the body’s natural feel-good factor with high-contrast colours and all-senses stimulation. Think: blue-and-white Greek island villages fragrant with wild thyme and oregano, or high-colour sights and jasmine-perfumed smells of Morocco.

Even Tui, one of the world’s largest holiday companies, is getting in on the act. It launched curated wellness breaks last year, a programme that partnered with television personality Davina McCall as a spokesperson for its ‘find your happy’ campaign. And in some ways, that’s what travel has always been about: getting away from it all, recharging, taking a break from the norm. But as travel and wellness become ever-more inexorably linked, our choices on exactly how we find our happy have become more nuanced and focused, immersing us in the outside world to soothe our inner one. Whether it’s working with a goat farmer in Morzine or running a marathon in a desert.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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