Business of Well-being

Wellness Tourism is Health Investment Well Worth a Trip

We all certainly want to enjoy healthier lives. Rising healthcare costs, struggling medical systems, and overwhelming stress associated with modern-day living has only given us added vitality toward better living. But, living well makes good sense to more than just us. The investment we make in our well-being can not only have a positive effect on our health, contentment and longevity, but can also affect the people - both at home and at work - that we interface with daily.

Employers know this. Workplace stress, alone, costs U.S. companies an estimated $300 billion annually and sleep deprivation another $63 billion or, more specifically, an estimated $2,280 per employee. Now, add the troubling statistic that businesses spend 200-300 percent more on indirect healthcare costs -- sick days and lower productivity -- than they do on direct expenditures - medical, pharmacy, disability claims -- and there is good reason why employers are concerned about the physical, mental and social well-being of their workforces.

Rest and relaxation has always been the most practical remedy for the sick and tired. Give an employee a well-deserved vacation and they'll return to work reinvigorated and reinvested in their jobs. But for many, the hassles of travel coupled with the excessive drinking, eating and staying up all night associated with vacationing presents employers with even greater cause to rethink the approach both they and their employees take to time away from work.

For this reason, employers who have linked the good fortunes of their businesses to the health and well-being of their employees have taken their financial and philosophical investment in corporate wellness programs on the road. Some businesses have gone so far as to offer wellness vacations as an added incentive to motivate employees to reach health performance goals.

Business with Pleasure

This concept of mixing business with pleasure toward the promotion of company objectives in the name of good health has helped, to some degree, give rise to the multibillion-dollar wellness tourism industry. But, the conversation around wellness extends far beyond the corporate board room or employee cafeteria.

The value of a wellness vacation and what hitting the reset button can do toward managing both existing disease and preventing chronic conditions has captured mainstream consciousness. Prevention and personal accountability are the cornerstones of the wellness marketplace, which boasts an economy three times larger than that of the $1 trillion worldwide pharmaceutical industry.

According to SRI International, wellness tourism represents a $494 billion international industry and 14 percent of $3.42 trillion total global tourism revenue.1 Don't confuse wellness tourism with medical tourism. Rather, think of the fastest growing trend in travel these days as a derivative of medical tourism that focuses on preventive care, lifestyle change and health promotion instead of curative treatments.

The combination of travel and wellness is, in fact, an altogether different animal, fed by an aging world population; the failure of conventional medical systems to address cost-effective, prevention-focused  approaches to illness; the increased globalization of healthcare; and the rise of chronic disease associated with stressful living.

The market for wellness tourism encompasses all shapes and sizes; yet, these components maintain the common threads that link physical activity, nutrition and relaxation around an authentic local experience. Although the United States is a popular destination, health-conscious consumers are apt to travel anywhere in the world where wellness disciplines are practiced - from India, the birthplace of yoga, to China, where nutritional supplements have had long historical significance.

Well Worth Trip

Wellness travelers took about 586.5 million trips in 2013, a 12 percent increase from the previous year. And while that's only a small portion of all tourism trips overall, the $1,639 spent per trip is 59 percent higher than what the average international tourist spends. It's no coincidence then that wellness travelers tend to be wealthier with greater disposable incomes and more educated than most tourists.

But, as the concept of wellness becomes increasingly more affordable and accessible and travelers acquire greater levels of comfort when contemplating experimental trips, millions of  potential customers will be growing in the wings. Wellness trips are made specifically for the sake of wellness or for some broader purpose that includes the maintenance of healthy habits while away from home.

Spa resorts that offer comprehensive programs from hiking, yoga and massage to acupuncture, weight-loss and stress management are connected to almost half of all wellness travel itineraries. VeraVia, a destination spa that opened a year ago in Carlsbad, Calif., is among the wellness stops that have retooled their offerings to comply with corporate priorities that make health and fitness a necessity rather than a luxury.

Others have joined the chorus. At Canyon Ranch, which operates a chain of health and wellness destinations across the country, the goal is to create lasting behavioral change. But, there's more to the approach than getting on the right path.

On-site physicians, who take a holistic approach to medicine that blends science and natural remedies, ensure that stressed out senior-level executives are healthy this year and the next by offering comprehensive health checkups that include extensive diagnostic evaluation, risk-factor analysis and preventive strategies.

Worldwide Appeal

Options for wellness vacations are popping up around the world - from Bali and Tulum to Mexico and Morocco -- and many are catered to keeping busy CEOs and vice presidents on top of their game. Travel agents, airlines and hotels are scrambling to catch up to speed with services and options that match the demands of their increasingly sophisticated wellness clients - from Millennials to Baby Boomers -- who see their bodies as an ecosystem where beauty, diet, mental health and fitness are intertwined.

Hotels are evolving around this new travel ritual, and international chains that hadn't made wellness a priority in the past do so now. Weary business travelers should no longer be surprised to find a massage offered upon check-in or a chance to burn off steam via innovative touches, like coat racks that morph into pull-up bars.

From juice bars and healthy menu options to work spaces and sleep-assistance tools, amenities geared to toward high-stressed business executives once considered luxuries are now staples. Airports around the world are making fitness centers and other healthy extras easier for travelers to access during layovers.

Travelers with time on their hands can rent a bike, a pair of inline skates or Nordic walking poles at the information desk inside Zurich Airport. Others can walk through underground terminals at O'Hare International and connect to a Hilton fitness center, where, for just $11 a day, traveling gym rats can find treadmills, free weights and elliptical machines only steps from one of the busiest airports in the United States.

Even eating options have taken a turn toward health at many airports, where menus have been expanded to offer nutritious entrees and snacks that can be brought on board to compensate for airlines that have eliminated meal services.

Extreme Measures

Considering that chronic disease has reached epidemic levels, wellness opportunities in tourism are destined to create more moments that remove people from the everyday stresses of work, family life and financial obligations. What other choice do all with a stake in wellness --- employers, hospitality and travel entities and even healthcare providers - have but to accept and relish in the number of consumers who increasingly will choose to focus their vacations around relaxing, renewing and rejuvenating.

Nowhere is this trend toward lifestyle modification taken to a greater extreme than at a weight-loss boot camp, where vacationers are losing pounds and Colorado is gaining visitors who are fueling the state's push to attract international travelers more attuned to wellness and fitness than lazy days by the pool.

The first Extreme Weight Loss: Destination Boot Camp at the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center in Aurora attracted 133 students determined to shed pounds and change their lives. Centered on diet and intense exercise, the program is hardly rocket science to the participants who have traveled from California, Alaska, Kentucky, Texas, and Canada and beyond to turn their lives toward the better.

It's not a revolutionary concept, but like wellness tourism, the approach is unique, fashionable, and open to more than corpulent campers.

Putting People's Health Together

Lose weight. Stop smoking. Learn to relax. Employers, health plans and district, state and federal governments are also seizing on these motives and others within the wellness movement to assign prevention philosophies that not only manage the health of individual employees, but entire populations.

The more urgent population health management programs are centered on baby boomers, many of whom are living longer, incurring larger healthcare expenditures and, more pressingly, about to enter retirement programs that are at higher risk of failing in the next decade.

To prevent the collapse of these pensions and keep seniors out of the emergency room for care that both government and commercial payers will increasingly decline to cover, an ounce of prevention is beginning to carry more weight with healthcare providers. Early returns appear to be paying off.

More than half of all providers and participants in the delivery of healthcare expect to recoup their investments in population health management programs within the next four years. More than a third claimed preventative care is their biggest clinical benefit.3 The message is not lost on these same local and national governments, many of which see wellness tourism as an economic driver to infuse their struggling healthcare systems with much needed funds to support educational programs for their own local populations.

But, for these fledging destinations to promote their spas and lifestyle-changing attractions prosperously, they must not only talk-the-talk, but walk-the-walk as well. Engaging local populations to take stock in their own health then becomes both a vital goal and influential factor in a destination's appeal to health and wellness consumers seeking a more holistic experience. That same enchantment must also carry over to the employers who send their senior executives to health and wellness retreats.

What better way of raising the profile of a healthy community and a diverse number of wellness-related activities than by touting the civic boon connected to an effective population health management program? Healthcare providers that will administer these corporate wellness programs in these locales will also have a role in effectuating population health management strategies that empower real-time data and analytical tools to impact their clinical decisions.

The greater upshot is that destinations and the stakeholders that make them inviting will get a firmer handle on wellness tourism and the concept will become a natural fit for health-conscious travelers. The good news is it won't take much in the way of creating new services, just repackaging existing assets into a single wellness tourism experience that works well for all involved.

About the Author

Rene-Marie Stephano, JD, is President of the Corporate Health & Wellness Association.


  1. The Global Wellness Tourism Economy 2013; SRI International; Accessed Jan. 14, 2014.
  2. The Global Wellness Tourism Economy 2013; SRI International; Accessed Jan. 14, 2014.
  3. "KPMG Survey:  Majority  of  Health  Executives  See  Population Health Investment Recouped within 4 Years; KPMG LLP; Jan. 15, 2015; majority-of-health-executives-see-population-health-investment-re-couped-within-4-years-300020062.html; Accessed Jan. 21, 2014.
Learn about how you can become a Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist→