Wellness Tourism or Sustainable Wellness Tourism?

Wellness Tourism is a sector by its own definition – a sector defined by travel as related to the maintenance, management, and improvement of one’s health and well-being with activities that are proactive, voluntary, and non-invasive in nature.  Such activities include those that address the physical, mental, emotional, occupational, intellectual, and spiritual domains of human health,

It is a broader catch-all encompassing elements of community-based tourism, domestic tourism, eco-tourism, volunteer tourism, etc.  It should not be confused with Medical Tourism or the broader over-riding Health Tourism

Southeast Asia with its plethora of unique geographical locations including islands, beaches, and lush forests, and its steadily expanding list of UNESCO wellness-related heritage listings, such as those listed at the bottom of the Thai Massage article here within the APSWC website, are just two of the greatest assets available in the region.  

It has long been a common saying that “it’s greener on the other side of the fence” but now we have to realize that “our side of the fence is green too”.   It’s time to promote with pride the local culture and traditions which our grandparents freely adopted as ‘normal’, yet with subsequent generations have often extolled as ‘old fashioned’.  

Tourists in a post-pandemic world are expected to have done more research prior to making their reservations and to place much more importance on nutrition, fitness, and mindfulness that have done previously.

Consumerism has helped drive economies and develops local communities with programs such as those guided by ASEAN’s OVOP, however, this needs to be expanded further into more sustainable products, which can be manufactured, produced, and marketed without harming the environment further, with the end product being of relevance / interest / of a price point – that is sustainable in the local markets as well as potential international markets.   For sustainability, the local markets (including national/regional) are the base ‘bread and butter’ while the broader international market which we have become reliant upon is only the ‘cream on top’.   Without a strong base, there is nothing to support the cream – and that is what we are finding now as the global tourism sector has taken a major hit, with revenues down 80-90% across the board, and multiple operators closed (permanently or temporarily) and business unlikely to reach pre-2019 levels anytime soon, the toll on the job market and the United Nations (UN), Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of “leaving no-one behind” has taken a major setback.

As we see a surge in the digital transformation of everything including wellness (which in itself is a generational challenge – easy for the Gen Z and Millennials who have grown up with technology, yet a potential challenge for Gen X’ers to get their head around.  Having said this, it is something that we are all going to have to deal with or get left behind in the rush.   Traceability – not only of the food we eat, but also the miles we travel to our stay-cation or other tourism destinations, as well as the number of resources we use – is still a relatively new concept, but along with increased awareness of the UN’s SDG’s and a better understanding of the potential of technology, is going to become less a ‘trendy’ terminology and more about being an ‘essential’ life tool.

Wellness tourism – or specifically sustainable wellness tourism provides a potential path out of the depths of darkness.  Already being developed and promoted in recent years – primarily to a niche market eco traveler Wellness Tourism had yet to reach the mainstream with the possible exception of the likes of luxury eco-tourism operators like Six Senses.  Circumstances now dictate that it must become mainstream and hedonistic days of wanton excess and indulgent tourism with over-packaged products (just because we can) must be pared down to a more simplified version that is more sustainable – both for the consumers pocket, the local community, and the planet as a whole.   Being sustainable does not mean that we have to forego luxury, it just means we have to be more responsible and think through the consequences of the offering and how it impacts the local community and take appropriate actions to ensure its long-term viability.

However, as with everything that starts out as ‘trendy’ there is the risk of not being true to the core.  Wellness Tourism is more than the wellness-washing concept of offering a guest room with a yoga mat, bulk shampoo dispensers, and a sign that says linens are changed on request.   It’s about how the property was built and more importantly how it is being operated today.  How does it impact the local environment, the local people, and what does it give back to the local community?   Plastic water bottles, individually packaged bathroom amenities, daily linen changes, imported foodstuffs, and chemical-based cleaning products are not sustainable in their current format, and cannot be part of sustainable wellness tourism unless they can be offered or delivered without being based or reliant upon petroleum or other chemical ingredients that are harmful to both our health and the health of our planet.

Wellness Tourism

Sustainable wellness tourism will see push back from the manufacturers of plastic products and chemical cleaners as they have built their businesses on our hypersensitivity and their own greed for more profits.  However, there are alternatives and some of these companies have even recognized this themselves with more eco-friendly cleaning products being offered by the likes of global giants Diversey and Ecolab, but there is a multitude of others yet to get on board despite having guidelines such as ISO 14024 eco-labeling standard well established. 

In our growing demand for greater hygiene in the food & service sectors, we have become increasingly reliant upon single-use plastic or rubber gloves.   One can argue that the harm that single-use plastic gloves can cause is well known but rubber (which in some forms is environmentally sustainable) however rubber gloves are yet to fall into the category of environmentally friendly and must be developed so that they can be recycled, or we give up on the false sense of security that they can create and look for alternatives or just make hand washing more desirous in our cleaning and food handling protocols.

While it is a cost and weight of transport consideration to packaging water in plastic, there are glass and metal can alternatives.   In South Australia, the government introduced a nominal container deposit charge on drinks containers in 1977 resulting in such containers today making up less than 3% of the total litter, but more importantly 40,000 tonnes of containers returned annually for recycling.  Such programs have subsequently been introduced by some other governments, but why have they not been adopted by ALL governments around the globe?   Aside from the environmental benefits, such schemes create thousands of jobs

Sustainable wellness tourism will be a challenge – as invariably there will be plenty of ‘wellness washing’ but the science is without question and it will come down to the education of both regulators (by operators) and consumers (by regulators and operators) as to what wellness is and what the wellness tourist should be able to expect.   Those tourists that talk with their feet or shame with their social media exposure will ultimately dictate which wellness tourism operators thrive and which ones are seen as wellness-washing and just not walking-the-talk.

Successful wellness tourism is reliant upon the inclusion of the local community.  Beyond a buy-local ethos, one of the challenges here is the incorporation of local culture and traditions without the exploitation of those that live it, so discussion is required between all parties to ensure the long-term viability of such actions.

Sustainability is more than a trendy post covid-19 term. It is about the future of our planet and must be embraced by everyone while there is still an opportunity to correct our collective greed and abuses of the planet we live so that future generations can live on Earth rather than travel to distant planets with all the unknows that that entails.

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