Self- and cultural preservation through spa and wellness tourism: an interview with Laura Ell

Spa and wellness promotes health and wellbeing, and as a tourism product, also has a significant impact on our visitor economy, local communities, and natural resources. Laura Ell, a spa and wellness tourism expert discusses. 

CHI: Hi Laura, thanks for chatting with me! Your area of expertise is in spa and wellness tourism. How is it defined? What is the difference between spa and wellness? 

Self- and cultural preservation through spa and wellness tourism: an interview with Laura Ell

LAURA: Thanks for inviting me, Chi. Wellness is defined by the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) as “the active pursuit of activities, choices and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health.” The dimensions of wellness that are touched on within the experience may benefit physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social and many frameworks would also add intellectual, financial and occupational aspects of a person’s wellbeing. 

Spas are but one means of engaging in wellness, and the reason they are often mentioned in tandem is that when it comes to tourism, spas have a very strong appeal to visitors. 

Spa is defined by the GWI as “establishments that promote wellness through the provision of therapeutic and other professional services animated and renewing the body, mind and spirit.”

Imagine spa as one of several options under the wellness umbrella. Other means of encountering wellness on a vacation may include sitting at a natural platform in nature for journaling and meditation, finding an aromatherapy air freshener or yoga mat in the hotel room, or booking an organic farm-to-table culinary experience.

CHI: Who is the spa and wellness traveller? 

LAURA: There are generally two categories of wellness travelers. First and foremost would be those who book wellness as a primary reason for their vacation such as going on a yoga retreat with wellness and spa infused into most all touchpoints throughout the trip package.

Second are the more mainstream conventional travelers who are in recent years beginning to seek some elements of wellness to incorporate into their trip but is not their primary focus for taking the vacation. For example, a golfer traveling to Morocco spending one evening of the trip in a hammam spa.

The wellness traveler sees value in investing in quality experiences so for example are willing to pay more for organic wine, high quality body products with local ingredients as souvenirs, and they want to know their treatments are hygienic, and have meaningful health benefits. GWI reports that wellness travelers spend a remarkable 53% more on average during their stay. 

Wellness travelers are no longer segmented by gender as much as in the past. A study iSpa released last month (August 2019) states 49% of spa-goers are men. This figure is up from 2005 when only 20% of males indulged in spas.

CHI: What gets you excited about spa and wellness tourism? What are some cool things that are happening in this sector? 

LAURA: I have to admit that in my youth I judged going to the spa as an unnecessary indulgence that was only for the wealthy. After experiencing highly stressful times in my life, I have come to rely upon wellness as an important means to recover and rejuvenate. Research shows that many others are going through similar realizations. In this high-paced world the timing could not be more ideal for making wellness available more broadly within tourism.

Self- and cultural preservation through spa and wellness tourism: an interview with Laura Ell
A peaceful space in nature creates opportunity for meditation and reflective journaling.
Image by Laura Ell

Over the past 10 to 15 years, the trend was to simply slap “& Spa” after the name of a hotel but in many cases having a room in a hotel is not enough to meet the expectations of the savvier traveler. Now there are some incredibly creative spa integrations in tourism that fully immersing guests so they can have a more meaningful wellness transformation.

“Earthing” or grounding is a big movement whereby one walks in nature in bare feet to get more connected to the earth. Similarly, Shinrin Yoku a traditional Japanese forest bathing therapy is also becoming globally recognized as a popular way to practice nature-based tourism while improving health.

Medical tourism is also merged into this sector and we are seeing an increased demand in sharing of medical therapies across borders, improvements in standards and increasing in sharing different methods of healing. I find this to be very exciting! Of course, there are risks involved in some medical tourism so precaution and pre-trip research is highly suggested. Standards vary around the world but overall, I see so many opportunities. Ayurveda in India is one such example where the practices can be used for spa and relaxation purposes alone or in the realm of medical tourism Ayurvedic treatments from trained doctors may be utilized for more therapeutic medical purposes.

CHI: How does participating in spa and wellness help the local community? 

Self- and cultural preservation through spa and wellness tourism: an interview with Laura Ell
Spiritual incense holders placed out each morning in Bali
Image by Laura Ell

LAURA: A best practice I especially encourage spa operators to move towards is ensuring that if local indigenous-inspired therapies are incorporated into the spa, that the local stakeholders are consulted in the process. An indigenous group should always have the right to say no to sharing particular practices if they so wish. When cultural groups agree to share their healing modalities I have seen in most cases that this creates pride for them to share and retain their practices. It may bring meaningful employment to them, and creates spin off economic opportunities for such items as wellness souvenir production and or supplying treatment supplies to the spa. Take for example jasmine massage oil processing in Thailand or Bali which benefits entrepreneurs financially from the growing demand of spas.

On the global community front, I have spoken to medicinal healers from different regions and they find that sharing their local traditions with international visitors creates a very positive cross-cultural exchange that is both bettering the health of the recipients and linking them to like-minded contacts. Like spice merchants in the past may share their flavors to different parts of the world, spa and wellness therapies may be delivered to visitors from other regions who then get to benefit from healing, hear the interpretive descriptions and gain more appreciation in the culture.

These are just a few examples of connecting wellness to local and global community benefits if done right.

CHI: There has been some criticism that the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognising Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) will impact already threatened wildlife species and populations – what is the sector’s rebuttal to that?

LAURA: This is a complex issue indeed. Cultural healing practices vary around the world. First to clarify for your readers, TCM incorporates any combination of acupuncture, moxibustion, massage, Chinese food therapy, herbal therapy, and the part you are referring to is that a select number of TCM practitioners do recommend use of animal parts which are incorporated into medicinal preparations.

WHO affirms that is does not condone wildlife poaching and instead it supports conservation of species on the CITES list. Endangered species such as tiger, shark and more recently pangolin have been removed from the list of TCM pharmacopeia. Various leaders in TCM have responded to this matter and specified that responsible practitioners do not promote use of endangered species. Patients preferences on the topic are also apparently concurring. A study by the University of Hong Kong and WildAid found 85% of respondents recommended that the use of endangered species in TCM be stopped. This news is indeed promising. That being said, there is still a risk to the sensitive wildlife populations and there is certainly more work to be done in education and stronger enforcement of species protection. My understanding is that the intention of much of the TCM around the globe, especially outside of China, in the wellness and spa setting is to primarily focus on the acupuncture and plant herbs part of TCM with little to no emphasis on the exploitation of wildlife. 

Self- and cultural preservation through spa and wellness tourism: an interview with Laura Ell
TCM also incorporates therapeutic massage, which is less about relaxation and more about healing and addressing chronic ailments.
Image by Kai Miano from Pixabay

One thing that is left out of most environmental conservation discourse around this topic is that there is actually a benefit to the preservation of cultural practices when TCM is promoted. Many see the WHO recognition as having important benefits to cultural preservation efforts and health promotion. As you mentioned, in 2010 UNESCO announced TCM practices, namely acupuncture and moxibustion, as “intangible cultural heritage of the humanities” worth preserving. In the instance of healing methods, the only way to keep them from being forgotten is to keep them in practice.

More needs to be done to educate some practitioners, for government agencies and related entities to enforce bans on poaching and for patients to request more sustainable herbal alternatives. I stand to be corrected, but my understanding is that we are moving towards that. 

CHI: Despite this, how is the spa and wellness sector growing? What is the trajectory for the next 5-10 years? 

LAURA: The wellness tourism economy was $639 billion USD last year (GWI, 2019) and the forecast is to continue on this upward path. All sectors of tourism will continue to add more wellness elements and the wellness tourism experiences will become more sophisticated. Consumers will ask more questions and demand higher standards as the market further matures. 

We will begin to see more younger (teens) and older (seniors) booking wellness experiences as well. 

CHI: Ok last question. What is your favourite spa treatment and why? 

LAURA: My most unexpected treatment would have to be a very recent one, which was a fire therapy by a Mongolian traditional healer. It followed the original methods of doing cupping and massage and I felt phenomenal afterwards. 

I also have a love for labyrinths so whenever I go on a trip, I seek out these unique wellness walking experiences that often tend to be set in impressive local environments. A helpful search tool is:

CHI: Thank you Laura, can’t wait to try out traditional treatments on my next trip! 

Laura Ell is a Canadian spa and wellness enthusiast assisting tourism destinations and enterprises to develop products more sustainably and integrating elements of the sense of place of where they operate. She has supported international tourism projects funded by private investors as well as USAID, World Bank, UNWTO, and UNEP. Laura is past Communications and Membership Director for the International Ecotourism Society. She has been a featured expert on CNN Travel and is a tourism judge for the Travel Alberta Alto Awards. Her spa research work was nominated by the Governor General of Canada’s Gold Academic Award in 2015.

Chi Lo
Chi Lo
Chi Lo is recognised as an expert in sustainable tourism with over 10 years experience leading sustainability programmes spanning several continents. Her consultancy offers both sustainability advisory and coaching services for businesses wishing to operate more responsibly and conscientiously, as well as communications and content development services. Chi is active in the sustainable tourism community and is currently a member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council Executive Committee and Board, and the World Tourism Association for Culture & Heritage Advisory Board.

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