The future of spa tourism


At the recent Global Spa Summit in Bali, Dr. László Puczkó of Xellum, presented a report "Health And Wellness Tourism", about the current state of the spa industry.   

Dr. László Puczkó is managing partner at Xellum and has been working in health related travel for over 15 years, on development projects, strategies, forecasting, trends, trend definition and on planning on a regional or national level.  Caroline Ratner of the IMTJ spoke to him about the report and his view of spa and wellness tourism today.

Why was the report commissioned?

The aim of the report is to identify and highlight the opportunities and issues in the global spa industry today and also to point out important opportunities for growth, especially in areas which haven’t already been exhausted or addressed.  The Global Spa Summit chose us to write the report because we have an overview and understanding of both sides of the spa and tourism industries and provide a link between the two.

What do you think some of the main problems and issues are facing the global spa and wellness industry?

One of the main issues is getting the terminology right, the word “spa” has been bastardised and stretched to become a catch-all term and means different things to both consumers and suppliers of services. A lot of services are standardised, a spa where you have a facial and a massage and maybe some water based therapy, especially at European spas, is what most people imagine a spa to be but there are so many different types of spa experiences available.

Getting a clear definition of what a company is offering is crucial for both the industry and its consumers. Consumers are confused; and it can be even more confusing when a company comes up with terms like med spa and medical spa because there is no standard definition of what these terms mean but if someone wants to enter the generic service market then the term “wellness” is appropriate, this implies that it is a mid market or upmarket service, either in a hotel or health facility which includes treatments that include different types of massage, beauty treatments and usually a swimming pool. This is what most consumers expect a spa to be.

And of course one of the biggest problems facing many different countries and companies providing the same generic “spa” experience” is where are their customers going to come from? I foresee this as a huge challenge.  It’s clear to me that the market isn’t really big enough. When you’re offering something generic it’s purely about price and reputation and that’s probably not going to be enough.

What is the solution? 

In the report we’ve outlined ways of helping businesses and consumers understand what they are offering, and how to differentiate themselves by using the correct terminology. The market is unaware that they can use many different words to describe what they are offer and that other words would be more appropriate and help them market their product at their target market more precisely, whether it’s a retreat, a wellness cruise, an ashram, a refuge you name it, yoga camp, boot camps and so on.  By precisely naming what they do potential customers will find it much easier to identify and understand the services on offer and find what they are looking for, companies need to define whether it is wellness tourism, medical tourism, spa tourism etc.  We designed a grid for the report to clarify the terms because I don’t think they are interchangeable when it comes to spas, a lot depends on the location and what it is on offer.

There is so much more to the wellness experience than consumers are aware of so part of the solution is to educate consumers about what different types of wellness experiences and holidays are available and to market to them appropriately, people will seek you out if you are different from the rest.

Every country is unique and what could be very appealing to travellers is the authenticity of the whole experience of travelling to a foreign country, experiencing a foreign culture and location and the different types of experiences available in that location. This could be anything that can include resort spas in beautiful locations, ashrams, yoga retreats, lifestyle retreats (like longevity centres) and eco-spas which can be very location specific and not necessarily high end. Countries could offer fusion products, where you have an activity or healthy living experience combined with being in a unique and beautiful location.



Should people considering investing in medical tourism or spa facilities?

In the long run I wouldn’t advise investment in pure standardised medical or spa services. I  would advise investment in lifestyle, wellbeing, something that’s authentic and location specific, or something that teams medical tourism with a lifestyle experience, like longevity centres, of which there are already a couple in the US, which are all about living longer and combining medical and spa treatments.

What do you think is the future for people travelling for health and wellness?

I think people will travel for benefits, not for wellness as such. I think in planning for long term people will travel for a healthier lifestyle and maybe they will do this more than travelling just for medical reasons, I question whether the medical tourism bubble could burst, I mean, is it really healthy to travel long haul for major surgery? Are people really going to do this in great numbers?

Another problem with pure medical tourism is lack of repeat business, which is the opposite of spa tourism. When you are only offering surgical treatment how many hospitals and clinics have patients that return again and again for surgical procedures?  Very few people choose to have invasive surgery more than absolutely necessary, where as wellbeing and longevity treatment is something you want to do more than once. You only have your left knee replaced once but as people age they will keep going back for wellness treatment.

I think certain countries will recognise that in the longer term medical travel will not work because you just won’t have millions of patients travelling. However, evidence based medicine is a different story. I believe that this is an area that will grow, this could include a combination of invasive treatments or treatments to avoid invasive treatment with evidence based medicine, treatments that can’t cure you but can treat them, for example treatments for allergies, skin diseases or diseases you can treat with spa based treatments, like thermal waters used for psoriasis, you cannot cure these diseases but you can treat them and that’s part of longevity and that’s where the potential is.

If there are too many generic luxury spas what new business opportunities are available?

The image of what constitutes a “spa vacation” needs to change, and when it does it will bring opportunities.  Many people would like to have the spa experience but think it’s too expensive but it doesn’t have to necessarily be that way.  For example, in the US you have massage chains in strip malls, which are easy to access and affordable. Many spas look at the market and copy what people are doing but they are all going after the same market, could serve a lot more people if they targeted the mid-market and therefore could be just as lucrative as an upmarket spa because you have a higher turnover of visitors because the prices are lower.  I believe in NO2C which means, “no clichés no copying”, people should be bold and not copy and come up with something new. We’ve lost the element of fun, spas have a reputation for being quiet, very clinical, very distant, it’s not fun, it’s all so serious and of course very luxurious but far too serious. I think there is space for someone like Virgin or Easy to recognise a gap in the market to develop the budget spa, it’s time to think differently.


For more information and to download the report, please visit: International Medical Travel Journal