How The Wellness Industry Is Taking Over Travel

The world of wellness – a global economy of care and workout offerings, nutrients, alternative medicine and more that reached $4.5 trillion in 2018 – has witnessed a triumphant ascension over the past decade. Popular perceptions of the importance of diet, fitness and healthy practices have transformed, powering vibrant new business sectors. And as wellness evolves and expands, auxiliary markets from food and drink to hospitality are starting to provide products that reflect the values of today’s health-conscious consumers.

Major companies broadly focused on the wellness lifestyle like fitness chain Equinox, indoor cycling chain SoulCycle and sports clothing retailer Lululemon are no different. As the lines blur between their products and the lifestyle they’re seeking to promote, these brands are taking steps to cater to all facets of their customers’ identity. Now all are moving into the tourism sector, offering multi-day excursions for members with health and fitness at their core.

Wellness tourism is defined by the US-based non-profit Global Wellness Institute (GWI) as “travel associated with the pursuit of maintaining or enhancing one’s personal wellbeing”. While ‘activity’ holidays have existed for years, embarking on one of these new journeys – from hiking in Morocco with Equinox to sailing towards the Italian Riviera with Goop’s Gwyneth Paltrow – usually means a luxurious bounty of strictly curated meals, supervised workouts and an emphasis on mindfulness and enlightenment.

From 2015 to 2017 the wellness tourism market grew from $563bn to $639bn, or 6.5% annually – more than twice as fast as the growth of tourism overall, according to GWI. By 2022, GWI predicts the market will reach a whopping $919bn – representing 18% of all global tourism – with well over a billion individual wellness trips to take place around the globe. Anne Dimon, president of the Wellness Tourism Association, adds that while wellness travellers can be anyone, the bulk tend to be higher-educated women between ages 30 and 60.

Yet despite its new visibility, the idea of travelling with the express purpose of improving wellbeing is by no means novel. Think back to the pilgrimages taken to the Dead Sea, ancient baths in Rome and natural hot springs across Asia – or the yoga retreats and Thai colon-cleansing holidays of more recent decades. But according to GWI, wellness tourism today is about much more than the destination or activities – it is an extension of the very values and lifestyle of the traveller.

“All around the world, more people are incorporating elements of health, prevention, self-actualisation, experience and mindfulness into their daily lives,” its 2018 report says. “It is not a surprise that people now expect to continue their healthy lifestyles and wellness routines when they are away from home.”

In the case of brands like Equinox, a US-headquartered fitness club known for its lavish amenities and hefty membership cost (over $3,000 per year for some), these values have translated into a new line of holistic, luxurious wellness trips aimed at the bodies, minds, souls and stomachs of the affluent. Members who sign up for a trip are what Beth McGroarty, director of research at GWI, describes as ‘primary’ wellness travellers – people who travel with an exclusive focus on wellness-centred experiences or destinations.

And although this group only makes up 14% of wellness tourism spending – the other 86% comes from by ‘secondary’ travellers who incorporate wellness activities into otherwise standard business or leisure trips – their average trip cost is much, much higher. “[Primary] travellers at the domestic level spend about 178% more than your average traveller,” McGroarty says. “And at the international level, they spend 53% more.”

For Equinox, moving into tourism means recreating the extravagance of their brand in new locales. And so far, filling spots with willing ‘primary’ travellers has been an easy task. Leah Howe, senior director of Equinox Explore (the brand’s travel line) says that almost 100% of members have expressed interest in attending a trip. Several of the six excursions planned for 2020, each limited to 12 to 20 people, have already sold out.


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