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Travel as healing

As the pandemic lingers into its third calendar year, it’s probably not surprising that travelers are increasingly looking to their vacations to work on their mental and physical wellness.

wellness vacationA provided image shows hikers at The Ranch Malibu in Malibu, Calif. Wellness vacations now go far beyond massages and diet advice, instead offering a respite from physical and mental stress. Here's what to expect. (The Ranch Malibu via The New York Times)

By Concepción de León

Before the pandemic, when Mary Calliste, 32, traveled, she would try to hit as many tourist attractions as she could. But in early December, Calliste, who works in the financial services industry out of Plainfield, New Jersey, went to Guatemala and stayed at an eco-friendly hotel called Lush Atitlán. There, she ate vegan meals, walked around the natural reserve and listened to music.

And loved it.

From now on, she said, “I see myself incorporating a lot more of my needs into my travel instead of what I can see.”

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As the pandemic lingers into its third calendar year, it’s probably not surprising that travelers are increasingly looking to their vacations to work on their mental and physical wellness. In a recent American Express survey, 76% of respondents said they wanted to spend more on travel that improves their well-being, and 55% said they would be willing to pay extra for these services or activities.

That has hotels ramping up their wellness offerings, from outfitting rooms with Peloton exercise bikes to adding programs that address mental health. Hilton has created a program called Five Feet to Fitness, which includes an interactive kiosk with fitness tutorials and a gym’s worth of equipment in some rooms.

At Miraval Resorts & Spas locations, guests over the past year have come in “having experienced symptoms of stress that they, quite frankly, were unfamiliar with,” said Simon Marxer, the hotel group’s associate vice president for wellness offerings.

In April, Miraval partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to create Journeys With Intention, a customizable wellness program that allows guests to choose from a selection of “journeys” according to their health goals. Among the offerings: self-connection, grief and loss, and mental well-being, as well as more standard spa, adventure and fitness programs.

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“What we’re seeing, certainly in hospitality, is the need to serve really the whole person,” Marxer said.

Spas took a hit

Spas, with their focus on high-touch, one-on-one services like massages and facials, were hit hard last year. Hotel and resort spas experienced a 42% dip in revenues, while destination spas, which offer an immersive experience, were down 37%, according to a report by the Global Wellness Institute published this month. But the wellness industry has since begun a rapid recovery, the report said, projecting that the spa sector will grow 17% annually through 2025.

Still, the downturn forced hotels and resorts — and their guests — to expand their notions of wellness and what activities fall under that umbrella. Before the pandemic, a wellness trip was probably centered on a spa’s traditional services, said Caroline Klein, chief communications officer of Preferred Hotels & Resorts, a luxury hotel group. Now, hotels may offer nature walks, meditation, yoga or any number of creative offerings.

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In some ways, hotels are responding to the lifestyles that many people adopted at the height of lockdowns, including making home-cooked meals and taking virtual fitness classes.

“Hotels are really seeing people bring those new mindsets, routines and preferences with them as they start to travel again,” Klein said. “What that creates is a definite shift in expectations and experiences that hotels need to cater to, because they’re not catering to the traveler from 2019.”

A provided image shows a Hilton hotel room with fitness equipment. Wellness vacations now go far beyond massages and diet advice, instead offering a respite from physical and mental stress. Here’s what to expect. (Hilton Hotels via The New York TImes)

Changing travel styles

What people want out of a vacation is shifting, said Chris Kam, president and chief operating officer of Omnitrak, a Hawaii-based research company that conducts regular national travel surveys. While travel has always been a reset, during the pandemic, “the travel experience transformed and became a place to heal — from mental, physical, spiritual stress,” he said in an email. “People travel for answers now about how to feel better.”

Feeling depleted by the pandemic, Ann Chen, 58, an English composition instructor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, recently booked a wellness retreat with a friend for June 2022 “as a way to keep going — find something positive,” she said. They plan to stay at Ojo Santa Fe in New Mexico, a wellness resort with thermal pools, meals sourced from local farms and a spa. They planned ahead for personal scheduling reasons, but also to give them time to research the area and understand its “culture, attitudes and beliefs,” Chen said. The idea, she added, was “to be soothed, to work on being calm, to work on eating good food.”

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“This kind of resort is getting us back to more of a normal feeling in our lives, where we’re just not so stressed out by worrying about whether we’re going to live another day,” Chen said.

Industry experts say the wellness travel trend is here to stay. The United States accounted for nearly 30% of the global wellness tourism market in 2020, and the sector is expected to grow to $919 billion by 2022 from $735.8 billion in 2020, according to the Global Wellness Institute.

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“This is where we were headed,” Marxer of Miraval Resorts & Spas said. “The pandemic has brought the future forward in an accelerated way.”

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First published on: 28-12-2021 at 22:30 IST
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