What exactly is Health Tourism?

Can you, and should you, promote your offering as a ‘wellness’ service? From a marketing point of view, the critical issue is the expectations of the consumer and the provider’s ability to meet or exceed those expectations.  And there are major differences between wellness and medical tourism in terms of motivations or drivers, says Irving Stackpole, President of Stackpole & Associates and László Puczkó, founder of HTWWLife.

Health Tourism connects travelling with the additional purposes and benefits of healing, health, wellness, and wellbeing. Tourism, travel, and vacations have always been about relaxation, regeneration, escape, or indulgence. Travelling and tourism activities contribute to the general wellbeing of the travellers.

When people travel for the primary purpose of receiving treatments and services to help improve their health and wellbeing, this is ‘Health Tourism’ (see diagram below).

‘Wellbeing’ is a very broad description, of course. The services being sought to improve wellbeing can be very different – from simple massage or spa treatments to highly sophisticated medical procedures. The underlying similarity is the intention of the consumer to access and consume these services at a destination that requires travel.

Health Tourism includes all the activities and services, either medical interventions or wellness treatments, intended to improve the wellbeing of the travellers. It includes everything from visits to traditional health resorts, wellness treatments, spas, and holistic programs (such as meditation), all the way to evidence-based medicine and life-saving surgical interventions.

Regardless of motivation, many travellers can benefit from health-related services, such as visiting a thermal/hot spring bath or spa. These travellers are not health tourists, however, but tourists who purchase health services.

Consider the following key points before embarking on marketing your service and/or location.

Is health at the core of what you do?

If the answer is Yes, then the destination and the service provider is targeting the markets for Health Tourism.

If health-related services are supporting elements of what you do – your value proposition – then you may find customers who will look for, and appreciate healthy options, but their travel will not be health-motivated.

Research has shown that visiting a coast, or a forest – even briefly – has positive impacts on travellers’ well-being. Does this mean that anyone who visits the coast, or a forest is a health tourist? No.

Hotels are adapting their amenities to offer more healthy options, such as fresh fruit juices in the minibar, exercise areas, or a running concierge. Does this mean that anyone who enjoys a healthy drink from the minibar is a health tourist? No.

Only travel where the primary aim is consuming a health-related, wellness, or medical service qualifies as Health Tourism.

‘Wellness’ goes beyond the physical to incorporate all aspects of life. The word was popularised by Halbert Dunn who described wellness as purpose in life, active involvement in satisfying work and play, joyful relationships, a healthy body and living environment, as well as the presence of happiness. Wellness is therefore holistic, bringing physical, emotional, social, environmental, occupational, and financial aspects of life under the same umbrella term – wellness.

Can you, and should you, promote your offering as a ‘wellness’ service? From a marketing point of view, the critical issue is the expectations of the consumer and the provider’s ability to meet or exceed those expectations (see definitions in the text box below).

The term ‘wellness’ has become overused and some say tired. The wellness-everything trend, sometimes also called ‘wellness-washing’ should encourage destinations and providers to use different terms, and we recommend careful, infrequent use of these, and other overused terms.

Your marketing communications should use terminology close to your core “Value Proposition”.

Medical or healthcare motivations range from elective procedures, such as plastic surgery to life-saving interventions, such as open-heart surgery. There are major differences between wellness and medical tourism in terms of motivations or drivers.

Wellness tourists travel voluntarily and seek services and programs that improve their wellbeing and happiness. In contrast, medical tourists need to travel, often to distant destinations, to receive important or necessary medical services. These decisions are often involuntary. This distinction is an important difference between wellness and medical tourism for marketing purposes.

When travel is not possible, such as during the pandemic, markets for health tourism are disrupted. Remote care (telehealth and telemedicine) can continue. Also, the desire and motivation of consumers to travel for healthcare services continue, and this demand becomes pent up. As we’ve seen, when travel is possible, and providers become available, market activity resumes.

Hungary hot springs: a case study

The natural thermal/hot spring water lake of Hévíz (Hungary) has been used for healing, rehabilitation, and cures since Roman times. The city’s services have been traditionally specialised in medical interventions, especially for orthopaedic diseases. It has a specialist hospital with outpatient services, as well as hotels with medical services.

Marketers of the city used to refer to the town as a medical tourism destination. During the last 10-15 years, wellness services have been introduced at many of the hotels so that a combination of medical and wellness services are now offered. Hévíz is now marketed as a Health Tourism destination, where guests as well as patients can find the services they seek.

Points to Remember

Health Tourism describes a very broad array of consumer activities from simple spa treatments to life-saving medical surgeries, where the primary motivation for traveling is the improvement of health and well-being.

Marketing Health Tourism describes the actions and activities of destinations, providers, and others who want to increase the awareness of and preference for specific locations or providers among health tourists. Successful Health Tourism marketing depends on:

  • Clear, specific definition of the service being offered (your offer)
  • A core value proposition that is in demand by prospective consumers; and
  • Identifying the customers/consumers whom you are attempting to attract.

About the authors

Irving Stackpole and László Puczkó are co-authors of The Marketing Handbook for Health Tourism which offers practical, applicable insights for health tourism destinations and providers of health, wellness, dental and medical services.