World of Wellness

Asia leads the world in spas and other services aimed at helping people lead more relaxing and enjoyable lives.

Centara Hotels and Resorts operates 36 spas throughout Southeast Asia.

Immerse yourself in a milky, floral bath amid soft music, enjoy a massage with aromatic herbal oils to relax your muscles, or open up your pores and rejuvenate your skin in a sauna. The choices are endless in the growing world of wellness spas and resorts. With more than 100 million trips taken every year, wellness tourism is booming in Asia Pacific.

The global wellness industry is a US$3.4-trillion market that is 3.4 times larger than the worldwide pharmaceutical industry, according to the 2014 Global Spa & Wellness Economy Monitor report by SRI International. Revenues in the global wellness tourism market alone rose 12.5% in 2013 to $494 billion, it said. And Asian countries occupy seven places among the top 20 wellness tourism markets in the world.

"One extraordinary thing that makes the Asian wellness tourism market so significant is just how fast it's growing", Susie Ellis, the chairman and CEO of the Global Wellness Institute and President of Spafinder Wellness Inc, told Asia Focus.

"The research indicates that no region on Earth is adding more wellness-focused trips a year than Asia. And when you combine pure annual percentage growth and trips, Asia Pacific also ranks as the world's fastest-growing wellness tourism market."

The report shows that Asia Pacific recorded 27% growth in wellness tourism trips in 2013, and 21% growth in expenditure. It is the top region in terms of the number of spas at 32,451, with a 50% increase since 2007. Significantly, the number of hotel and resort spas more than doubled in Asia-Pacific from 2007-13, which has driven robust growth in spa revenues.

Asia ranks second worldwide in spa revenue with $18.8 billion generated, and 614,202 people employed in the industry.

A Thai herbal heated compress is one of many indulgences available locally.


The wellness boom can be attributed to the unique advantages that Asia has. Visitors have long associated the region with centuries-old holistic and healing traditions such as Ayurveda massage in India, traditional Chinese medicine, onsen or ancient hot springs and shiatsu massage in Japan. Products with cultural properties such as Harnn, the contemporary Asian-inspired lifestyle brand developed in Thailand and exported worldwide, also appeal to tourists.

This trend has prompted hotels and other businesses to tap into the wellness trend. Thailand-based Centara Hotels and Resorts has been at the forefront of the movement.

"We have 36 spas throughout Southeast Asia. In our resort properties, most guests are hotel guests who use the spa facilities throughout their stay. Their nationalities are the same as the resort guests — predominantly British, German, Chinese, Korean and Australian," Tara Hanrahan, group director of spa operations of Spa Cenvaree, a unit of Centara Hotels, told Asia Focus.

"International guests like to try either a Thai massage or conventional aromatherapy massage perhaps with some local Thai oils — they like to feel different afterward."

Spa Cenvaree is now expanding the concept at key locations such as Phuket, Samui and Krabi by offering a host of activities packaged together as wellness retreats. "They'll be headed by yoga master Areeya Nilsson, who has put together five-day packages to suit the needs of today's travellers," said Ms Tara Hanrahan.

The wide variety of destinations in Asia offers many choices to tourists. For spas, Bali attracts millions of tourists from Asian countries including Japan, India, Taiwan and China every year. For a relaxing Thai massage, there are countless venues in Pattaya, Hua Hin, Chiang Mai and Bangkok, and large wellness centres including Chiva Som, Banyan Tree Spa Sanctuary and Centara hotels and resorts.

For yoga classes and spiritual retreats, India draws celebrities from Madonna to Boy George and Oprah Winfrey. With more wellness trends emerging, more destinations are popping up.

The affordable price of Asian wellness services is another big plus. "It costs about 1,500 baht for a one-hour massage in Taiwan but you can enjoy oil massage, water treatment and sauna in Thailand for the same price and high quality service," said Yi Juo Lin, a Taiwanese tourist who were attracted by the spa suite when he registered for a five-day tour to Pattaya with his colleagues.

While it costs as little as 200 baht an hour for a quality body massage at a small shop in Bangkok, the same service would cost the equivalent of around 2,000 baht in the United States.

While Asia enjoys many advantages, some countries have been more successful than others at building a global image. India is a case in point.

Participants practise a yoga pose during an International Day of Yoga event at Chulalongkorn University in June.

India's position in the world wellness market is unshakable as a centre of Ayurveda, yoga and meditation, which leads visitors to trust in the authenticity of the services provided there. Westerners may not know any Hindi but everyone knows how to offer a greeting of "namaste" in a yoga class or wellness centre.

The 2013 study by SRI International predicted India would be number one globally in terms of growth in wellness tourism over the next five years, with gains averaging 20% annually through 2017. The reputation for authenticity, low prices and a large variety of destinations, especially in southern India, are among the advantages the country enjoys.

The Indian government has also been doing a lot to build the image of a first-class wellness country. The International Day of Yoga, proposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and endorsed by the UN General Assembly, took place on June 21 amid great fanfare around the world.

The decade-old "Incredible India" tourism promotion campaign has also had a heavy focus on spiritual tourism, showing beautiful images of yoga, spas, meditation and massage amid breathtaking natural landscapes. He campaigns have resulted in a 28.8% increase in tourist traffic and a No.1 ranking in the reader survey carried out by Travel+Leisure, a travel magazine with 4.8 million readers.

Thailand, which bills itself as the "Spa Capital of Asia", is one of the top 10 wellness tourism markets in Asia Pacific. According to a study conducted by The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) in 2012-13, health and wellness tourism generated 858,340 trips to Thailand and 31.12 billion baht in total revenue during the period.

As the market continues to grow, spas have become one of the four key components of tourism in the country. The TAT recently declared that health and wellness receive a special focus in its marketing efforts during the next few years. It launched a "Find Your Fabulous" digital marketing campaign in 2013, featuring 150 wellness-related packages offered by 30 leading providers that allowed tourists to book online and receive special prices.

To spread the "Spa Capital of Asia" message and make the designation official, the TAT wants the government to do more long-term marketing, since the industry has the capacity to serve many more people.

The Thailand Health and Wellness Tourism Show will be held from Sept 14-17 to bring international buyers to meet Thai sellers of medical and wellness services.


As the number of spas and resorts increases sharply, the market is becoming more competitive. However, Ms Ellis believes there is room for everyone. "With the Asia-Pacific wellness tourism market forecast to grow by 67% between 2012 and 2017, there is certainly room for new entries, even though the market is competitive," she said.

To stand out in the market, Ms Ellis says providers need to offer a unique brand and properties. Six Senses Resorts & Spas is one such example, blending local cultural elements with modernity. These properties can be seen in the new Qing Cheng Mountain in China, Six Senses Samui or Yao Noi in Thailand, Six Senses Con Dao or Ninh Van Bay in Vietnam, and even Six Senses Bhutan opening in 2016, all with their unique indigenous properties and architecture.

In some other Asian countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Bhutan, the wellness industry is still in its infancy, so many new developments could yet emerge.

"There is always room for original wellness travel destinations," said Ms Ellis, who foresees amazing prospects for continued growth of wellness tourism in the years ahead.

High margins and Asian entrepreneurs' enthusiasm to develop the industry mean that the competition among players is high. The lack of barriers to entry also means that businesses can vary from small operators all the way to major chains, with prices ranging from a few hundred to thousands of baht an hour.

"Increased competition is always positive. With the Asean community growing, there will be greater diversification and availability of wellness therapies in Thailand," said Ms Tara of Spa Cenvaree.

"Spas will become more relaxation centres where people can undergo a range of therapies and services in one go. Wellness therapies will grow to encompass non-physical services, such as ways to increase self-esteem and compassion, relieve grief, help insomnia and more."

As one of the world's top spa destinations, Thailand is also well-known for its beauty and spa products. High-end local brands such as Harnn, Panpuri and Thann have penetrated the world market, opening stores not only in Asia, but also in North America, Europe and the Middle East.

According to the Department of International Trade Promotion at the Commerce Ministry, exports of Thai spa products are expected to grow by 12% to 2.24 billion baht this year, an impressive performance at a time when the country's overall exports are contracting in a weak global economy.

Attractive packaging of spa products from makers such as Panpuri is part of their appeal.

"Despite the global economic downturn, we see the industry growing continuously," said Vudhichai Harnphanich, the director of Harnn, told Asia Focus. "Globally, we had 700 million baht in sales last year and we expect to exceed 1 billion this year."

In a market where there is fierce competition among mid-priced product providers, high-end producers stand out by providing a large variety of high-quality and well packaged spa products for bathing, body care, skin care and home ambiance

Panpuri opened its first retail store in Thailand in 2004 and has not slowed down since. A 300-ghramme Panpuri scented candle can sell in the UK for 50 to 60 pounds (2,750 to 3,300 baht) and the company has no shortage of customers.

Consumers are attracted to high-end spa products by the elegant packaging, and most significantly the idea that they are using "natural" and "organic" materials.

Spa products today seek to blend modern "organic" ideals with traditional and indigenous wellness elements.

"Our products appeal to educated people looking for high-quality natural products that will complement and enrich their lifestyles, which are picked up on by trend-setting people in many countries around the world," said Mr Vudhichai of Harnn.

And while the trend toward certified organic products might slow down as price becomes more of a consideration for some consumers in a weak economy, he foresees a boom in anti-ageing products as societies around the world grow older.


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