Why Asia Is at the Heart of the Wellness Tourism Boom


Kati Chitrakorn | August 29, 2019

Tourism is one of the fastest growing segments of the wellness economy. It’s currently the third largest portion of the wellness industry, worth $639 billion in annual revenue. Luxury companies and brands interested in tapping this segment should eye the Asia-Pacific region, as well as Asian tourists.

“Stretch, relax and rejuvenate” — that was the mantra that Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific hoped to instill in its customers when it opened a dedicated yoga and meditation space in its popular The Pier Business Class Lounge in January 2019. 

Dubbed “The Sanctuary by Pure Yoga,” the 700-square-foot space is divided into two parts: “The Body Sanctuary,” which is devoted to yoga and includes guided videos led by Pure Yoga teachers, as well as a separate space for self-guided practice; and “The Mind Sanctuary,” where travellers can spend some time meditating. Here, guests have the option of a cushioned pod, equipped with noise-cancelling headphones for listening to guided meditation sessions, or cushions that overlook Trakata wall graphics for a form of gazing meditation.

But it’s not Cathay’s first foray into the nexus of travel and health. In 2016, the airline gave its inflight meals a nutritious overhaul, recruiting TV chef Daniel Green — known for his clean and light dining philosophy — to design a healthy menu to be enjoyed at 30,000 feet. The company also recently partnered with fitness company Pure Group to offer gym facilities to its frequent fliers.

“Wellness is becoming increasingly important to our customers,” said Vivian Lo, general manager of customer experience and design at Cathay Pacific, in a press statement.

Fastest growing segment

Indeed, wellness tourism — the pursuit of maintaining or enhancing one’s wellbeing on vacation— is no longer a hippy concept sought out by spiritual or backpacker types, but one of the fastest growing segments of the wellness economy. It’s currently the third largest portion of the wellness industry, worth $639 billion (€576 billion) in annual revenue. And according to estimates from the Global Wellness Institute (GWI), wellness tourism will reach $919 billion (€829 billion) over the next three years.

The GWI’s 2019 report shows that wellness trips now represent 6.5 percent of all tourism trips taken worldwide, growing a whopping 15.3 percent annually from 2015 to 2017, reaching 830 million trips each year. It goes hand-in-hand with the rise of worldwide tourist arrivals, which is expected to continue increasing by 43 million annually and will reach 1.8 billion arrivals by 2030, according to the United Nations World Trade Organization (UNWTO).

For luxury firms interested in tapping the wellness tourism boom, the Asia-Pacific market is key. Not only is Asia-Pacific forecast by the UNWTO to see the biggest growth in tourist arrivals between 2010 and 2030, beating out traditional destinations like Europe and North America, the region has become the fastest growing wellness tourism market today.

According to Beth McGroarty, vice president of research at GWI, wellness trips to Asia (both domestic and inbound) grew a staggering 33 percent from 2015 to 2017. “Today, nearly a third of the world’s wellness trips happen in Asia,” she said, adding that Asia’s wellness tourism market is projected to double to $252 billion (€227 billion) by 2022.

But what’s driving this shift?

For starters, people are more stressed out than ever before. Analytics firm Gallup found that global reports of negative emotions — including sadness, worry and stress — have increased over the last decade, reaching a record high in 2017.

“When you have [limited time off] more people simply can’t afford the old vacation model based on wild excess of decadent food, too much drinking, partying, too many late nights and bad sleep,” said McGroarty. “It’s a mindset shift: more people want to achieve rejuvenation and transformation when they travel. They want to return home feeling better, physically and emotionally.”

Competitive edge

A green environment, native ingredients with health properties and an emphasis on cultural traditions are a few unique factors that have helped create a competitive edge for Asia as a destination for wellness tourism. “Asia is the homeland of so many truly holistic systems of wellness,” McGroarty continued, citing healing methods such as traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture, Ayuveda and yoga, and massage techniques from Thai to Shiatshu that have gained global popularity.

“There are also hundreds of authentic Asian wellness destinations at lower price points,” she added. “Price can be a real advantage, especially for American and European travellers.”

For Cathy Chon, founder and managing director of CatchOn, a marketing firm based in Hong Kong and Shanghai, the wellness tourism boom in Asia is tied to the region’s economic prospects as well as the continued growth of its middle class and affluent segment. 

Asia-Pacific consumers currently represent 37 percent of the total number of global travellers, with international travel spending doubling in the last decade. And China’s outbound travel market is expected to swell to over 400 million by 2030, with Chinese tourists spending $258 (€232) annually, according to data from CatchOn.

“Wellness has become a dominant consumer value and lifestyle driver, and this is profoundly changing behaviour, choices and spending decisions,” Chon said.

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So when it comes to wellness, it’s no longer just about spa treatments. “People might go on a silent retreat in Vana, Dehradun or sign up for panchakarma in Goa. You can go for detox and meditation at a coconut plantation in San Benito in the Philippines. There are fantastic surfing resorts in Bali. Don’t forget the onsens, kaiseki and forest bathing in a ryokan in Hakone. Or what about a Thai massage at Bangkok’s Wat Po temple?” said Chon. “There are too many to name!”

According to GWI, top Asia wellness destinations include Bali, the Maldives, Thailand, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Women-only vacations have also soared in popularity in the last decade. Some tour companies have seen over 200 percent growth in the last few years alone. In Bali and Nepal, women-only retreats have been popular. Women in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Philippines, Korea and Japan are also making girlfriend getaways a regular part of their lifestyles, where wellness activities are at the heart of the experience.

“I think the best and most authentic wellness destinations in Asia can teach Western hospitality companies that ‘wellness’ is not some amenity or a flashy add-on or simply something you can plug into a property because it’s now trendy,” said McGroarty. “Physical health, including beauty and weight loss, used to dominate [but] over the past few years, the world has shifted to mental wellbeing. The power of ‘Asian wellness’ comes from its holistic vision and approaches that address both the body and mind.”