Bridging the credibility gap in wellness tourism

Wellness is big business and there is no doubt that there’s growth. But are wellness and wellness tourism now facing similar challenges to the medical tourism sector around therapies and ethics? Keith Pollard, IMTJ editor in chief, thinks so.

In previous articles on IMTJ, we’ve discussed the hype that has surrounded the development of the medical tourism sector and how this has led to exaggerated expectations of growth, disappointment for industry investors and a media backlash when “medical tourism goes wrong”.  So, is the fast growing wellness and wellness tourism business facing similar challenges?

There’s no doubt that wellness is big business. As with medical tourism. There are extravagant claims about overall market size: the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) claims it was worth US$4.4 trillion in 2020 and will grow to  US$7.0 trillion in 2025; McKinsey estimate the global wellness market at more than US$1.5 trillion, with annual growth of 5 to 10%. The reality is that no one really knows how big it is. There is confusion over terminology, terms, and how you might measure industry size.

When it comes to the wellness tourism sector, we see the same confusion and range of industry estimates. Grand View Research valued the global wellness tourism market at US$451 billion in 2021 and expect it to grow at a US9.93% from 2022 to 2030. Allied Market Research reckon it was worth US$801.6 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach US$1,593 billion by 2030, with a growth of 7.2% from 2021 to 2030.

There’s no doubt that there’s growth. There’s been a boom in wellness therapies. Therapies such as acupuncture, Ayurveda, Reiki, aromatherapy have been around for many years. More recently, we  have seen a plethora of approaches to maintaining health and wellbeing. Here are just a few:  crystal therapy, superfood sprays, breath-work sessions, IV vitamin drips, heavy metal detox, ayahuasca, bee sting therapy, essential oils, ice chambers, and hyperbaric oxygen therapy. I could go on. Many of these untried and untested therapies have been driven by the wellness “influencers” on social media, such as:

  • Davinia Taylor, an English soap actress who credited “biohacking” with her mental and physical transformation.
  • Jessica Ainscough, the Australian “wellness warrior, who shunned conventional treatments and tried to cure her cancer through Gerson therapy. She died, aged 30.
  • And of course, Gwyneth Paltrow who has promoted her “Goop” therapies across the globe.

The media backlash

Alongside the boom in therapies and market growth, we are now seeing a backlash. The NHS England chief executive has slammed Paltrow’s “Goop” remedies saying that her approach poses a “considerable health risk” to the public. Desperate Long Covid patients are turning to “miracle cures”.

An article in the UK’s Daily Telegraph last week, “Why we are spending £1.26trillion in a bid to feel better?” highlighted many of the concerns:

  • “The benefits of many of these treatments still exist only in the realms of the theoretical… the science is vague.”
  • “Wellness is crying out for some kind of regulatory framework. Anyone can share health advice, no matter how ill-qualified or dubious their motives.”

Medical wellness – bridging the gap

So, how can the wellness business and wellness tourism, in particular, counter these concerns about therapies and ethics and ensure the long term future of the sector? Perhaps the coming together of wellness and clinical medicine may offer the long term solution through “medical wellness”.  Alongside the multitude of spa and wellness destinations, we are seeing the growth of medical wellness resorts that offer more than just the feelgood factor and are clinically driven. Here are some examples:

  • Vivamayr, in Austria, offers “daily medical supervision”, “the combination of traditional diagnostics and therapy and modern complementary medicine” and “medical competence and an holistic approach”
  • The Chenot Palace Weggis, in Switzerland, offers “Science Behind Wellness”, “state-of-the-art diagnostics and cutting-edge medical screening tests” and a “research-driven approach to the diagnostics.”
  • Pritikin Longevity Centre, in the USA, promotes “a physician-led team of wellness professionals”, “sustainable weight loss and healing of lifestyle diseases that is scientifically-proven”

These three facilities demonstrate how wellness may bridge the credibility gap by delivering wellness programmes that are clinically led and research based. They prove that wellness therapies and clinical medicine can work together successfully to deliver what their clients are seeking – ultimately, to live longer and to live healthier. In the world of wellness, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.