How All Travel Became Wellness Travel in the Past Decade

Photo: Getty Images/Ingo Rösler
Even if you've always been the type to take an annual yoga retreat or use hotel gyms, healthy-travel options were fairly limited and siloed off until recently. You certainly couldn't meditate via a seat-back airplane TV, book a consultation with a sleep concierge, or score kombucha from your in-room minibar. But, as we close out a decade in which wellness has transformed every facet of the travel experience, it's clear that good-for-you amenities like those have become the rule rather than the exception.

"It’s hard to even wrap your mind around how fast the [healthy travel] concept has grown," says Beth McGroarty, director of research and PR at the Global Wellness Institute (GWI), which has been tracking the union of wellness and tourism since 2010. "Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have even known what someone was talking about if they said 'wellness travel.' Now, it’s everywhere."

Not only is wellness travel now ubiquitous, but it's also thriving. According to the Global Wellness Institute, the category is set to be worth $919 billion by 2022—which is double its 2013 valuation. GWI data shows that wellness travel makes up about one-sixth of all tourism dollars spent worldwide, and that it's been growing at twice the speed of general tourism. "People who are really tracking the tourism industry are saying this is one of the fastest-growing travel categories in the world, if not the fastest," says McGroarty.

"Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have even known what someone was talking about if they said 'wellness travel.' Now, it’s everywhere." —Beth McGroarty, of the Global Wellness Institute

Of course, not every wellness-conscious traveler is interested in holistically swapping beachfront cocktails and sodium-rich dinners for yoga classes and kale salads. To this point, McGroarty says only 15 percent of revenue from wellness tourism comes from primary-wellness travel, where healthy activities are the main intention. The other 85 percent is considered secondary—in other words, these travelers are imbuing their itineraries with occasional meditation classes, healthy food, and other such pursuits on an ad-hoc basis, rather than making wellness the crux of their trip. It points to the future of wellness travel being sprinkled into our lives—more like a lifestyle choice rather than a crash diet.

Creating healthy habits, then hitting the road with them

So how did we get here? If you ask McGroarty, the rise of wellness travel—and wellness in general—is connected to the rise of constant connectivity via technological developments. "Now, we’re never detached from this endless flow of social media and work emails in the middle of the night. It's created unprecedented levels of stress and cognitive burnout," she says. "I think that was a big factor in people needing to get more out of their vacations. They now have to come back feeling better than before."

Taryn Toomey—creator of The Class and its sister wellness-retreat program, The Retreatment, which launched in 2014—agrees. "People are so overworked these days and are seeking ways to feel more balanced in their approach to time well-spent," she says. "They are drawn to the concept of being able to combine their own personal wellness with a vacation. You come home feeling refreshed and with a new sense of awareness."

"People are drawn to the concept of combining personal wellness with a vacation. You come home feeling refreshed and with a new sense of awareness." —Taryn Toomey, creator of The Class

But in addition to these big (and, often, expensive) trips dedicated to R&R, increasingly wellness-savvy travelers also began to seek ways to continue their new healthy habits—signing up for boutique fitness classes, experimenting with anti-inflammatory eating plans, meditating for a few minutes in the morning—when away from home. "Increasingly, people want to maintain their healthy habits on the road," says Mia Kyricos, SVP and Global Head of Wellbeing at Hyatt. "They want to know how their travel experience can support and positively impact their mental and physical well-being."

These factors all converged in the 2010s, when mainstream legacy hotel brands started launching wellness initiatives, one after the next. Westin was one of the first movers on this front—in 2011, the brand introduced a campaign titled "The Elements of Well Being," which featured guest perks like superfood-enhanced menu items and an activewear-lending program in partnership with New Balance. Since then, hotels such as Hilton and Kimpton have stocked select guest rooms with yoga mats and other gym equipment; Marriott and Four Seasons properties began rolling out healthy hotel rooms that feature circadian rhythm lighting, air purification, and aromatherapy; shortly after it acquired the Exhale fitness brand and Miraval spa in 2017, Hyatt introduced FIND, a platform of nearly 150 unique, members-only experiences centered around mind, body, and movement; and Intercontinental went so far as to launch an entirely new hotel brand, Even, that has wellness baked into every aspect its guest-room and dining experiences. McGroarty says this shift supports the notion that wellness travel has absolutely gone mainstream. "It's not the province of some $500-a-night wellness resort anymore—it's now a mandate for the hospitality industry to get healthier and more wellness-focused."

Meanwhile, as boutique fitness and wellness grew in popularity, those communities began creating healthy-travel experiences of their own. By 2016, travelers were using their PTO to practice downward-facing dogs in paradise with Yoga for Bad People, sweating it out at Tone It Up getaways, and rushing to book The Retreatment's coveted trips before they inevitably (and quickly) sold out. Well+Good entered the fray in 2018, selling out its quarterly retreats at locales nationwide. According to Kevin M. Kelly, president of Sensei Retreats—whose newest property, the Four Seasons Hotel Lanai at Koele, A Sensei Retreat exclusively offers personalized wellness getaways—the immersive aspect of retreats is what makes them so irresistible to travelers. "Retreats create an insular environment for people to turn inward and focus on their wellness intentions," he says.

Hotels and retreats aside, wellness has infiltrated just about every other imaginable sector of the travel industry within the last few years. Airports in New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago now have yoga rooms available for travelers to use. United Airlines and JetBlue customers can listen to meditations in flight, while Singapore Airlines offers a nutritionist-designed menu of healthy meals. Hotel spas have expanded their offerings from traditional massages and facials to sound baths and shamanic healing, and even cruises are incorporating TRX workouts and green juice. With all of these developments, says McGroarty, "convergence" has become the buzzword in wellness travel. "All the lines between industries are breaking down like never before."

What's next for wellness travel?

Wellness travel is positioned to become more inclusive, both in terms of price and audience, in the next decade, and New York City-based wellness-event series Blind Seed is one company leading that charge. It was born three years ago from a desire to provide more affordable (often free), accessible wellness-travel offerings. "We tried to make our retreats much more affordable and located within a two-hour radius of the cities where we live," says Tara Aura, Blind Seed co-founder. In addition to weekend-long retreats, Blind Seed also offers free Urban Retreats in NYC, which give city-dwellers a slice of the experience over the course of a few evening hours. Aura and her co-founder, Sara Elise, are also committed to increasing inclusivity in wellness travel. "As two queer women of color, ours was a demographic we felt was underrepresented [in the wellness retreat space]. It's important to us to represent a broad diversity of people in our healer population with every retreat," Aura says.

There's also a back-to-basics sensibility emerging in the world of wellness travel, which McGroarty predicts may lead to a decreased focus on flashy amenities like in-room spin bikes and more emphasis on, say, connecting with others and getting outdoors. "The pillars of what really makes people well are very simple: stress reduction, time in nature, time with actual human beings, sleep, uncomplicated movement," she says. She points to the rise of community-focused hostels like Selina and Outsite as an indication of where wellness travel could be heading. "The model before was you left your community to go off and travel. Now, theres so much loneliness and isolation that travel is a way to find a community," she says.

Finally, sustainability is likely to go hand-in-hand with healthy travel as it evolves. Sustainable properties are being developed in more and more remote locations, including the Shinta Mani Wild resort in Cambodia, which can only be accessed by zip line, and the Six Senses Galapagos, the first and only resort allowed to be developed on the islands. "The conversation around well-being for people, planet, and community will continue to merge, and consumers will not only expect wellness travel to address individual health and well-being, but also to shed light on sustainable development and consumption in relation to travel," says Kyricos. To this end, McGroarty predicts that we'll start seeing more wellness resorts popping up in cities (like the forthcoming Six Senses New York), which may cater to wellness staycations. "People are getting really concerned about climate change. They don't want to travel as much and as far," she says.

One thing's for sure: The wellness and travel industries have become so intertwined that we may not even need to qualify a trip as being "healthy" in the future—it'll just be a given.

Another prediction: Sustainable travel is going to jet onto everyone's radar. And there's a reason travelers are flocking to yoga retreats—the 5,000-year-old practice is more popular than ever.

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