Wellness Travel Comes of Age

When 600+ wellness experts from 40+ nations gather to debate the future of wellness, a uniquely insightful and global view of trends unfolds. That’s what transpired at the recent Global Wellness Summit (GWS), which brought together leaders from the travel, spa, beauty, fitness, nutrition, technology, medical and architecture worlds. Now, the organization released their top wellness trends for 2018 (and beyond).

The group took a long look at wellness travel as part of their view and found an industry which is just hitting its stride.

More wellness destinations are creating new concepts that cast the traveler-pilgrim in an immersive story or defining narrative: A multi-chapter wellness journey…an emotional, even theatrical, saga of transformation…Another trend is multi-property wellness circuits…where travelers trek through nature at sunrise, visit village artisans, meditate in a treehouse, and then move to ocean cliffs for hours of treatments. Spas have long adopted the language of the “journey” but with little actual journeying; now concepts are appearing befitting the term.

The specific ways that wellness destinations are starting to use the power of circuits, storylines, sagas and safaris tell the tale of this trend more than any abstract theorizing. But one clear future for wellness travel is experiences that wrap people up in a dramatic story or sense of theater, that can incite (using the powerful mechanisms of narrative and fantasy) that elusive, perspective-changing interior journey. In a few words, there are signs that a new era of transformative wellness travel is being invented.

Six Senses Bhutan

In 2018, Six Senses Bhutan will launch the first multi-property, story-based, wellness circuit. Guests will journey across five lodges, and at each destination all experiences, from food to design to spa/wellness experiences, will be based on a powerful multi-chapter story: Five key pillars of Bhutan’s unique “Gross National Happiness Index.” Bhutan, that ancient Himalayan kingdom of unspoiled nature, culture and spirituality is actually more forward thinking than the rest of us, with national policy based on formal principles of happiness for its citizens rather than gross domestic product.

Six Senses Bhutan guests will take an “amazing journey” across dramatically diverse topographies, climate zones and cultural areas as they move across five intimate inns (82 rooms total) – where each guest will mark their physical, mental and spiritual journey by adding charms to a bracelet given at the start of their quest – and when they arrive at each destination they will receive a card where they set their intentions for that specific aspect of happiness.

The journey begins in Paro (near the cliffside Tiger’s Nest) where guests are immersed in the “happiness pillar” of education and community, experiencing everything from retreat caves to Bhutanese folklore to sound healing. Moving to Thimphu (the capital) they dive into physical health, going deep into Six Senses’ rich health/wellness offerings. At Punakha, the rice farming region, it’s all about time and sleep: From sleep education to all-sleep-focused spa (foot, cranial and hand) treatments. At Gangtey/Phorjikha, a rural time warp, it’s immersion in mental well-being: From meditation to the Ayurvedic practice of Swedana (herbs, herbs, herbs). At Bumthang, with its extraordinary ancient monasteries, the focus is on culture: From painting to archery to a spa alchemy bar where guests concoct their own treatments.

An entirely unique, narrative-based wellness pilgrimage immersing travelers – chapter by chapter – in Bhutanese values and culture…A “shepherding” model that allows a wellness travel company to bring people to strange-to-them locations with peace of mind that keeps the traveler in the brand as they journey…And with all transport cared for and no baggage lugging, it’s a stress-free trip.

Recently named “top hotel brand in the world” by Travel & Leisure, Six Senses is always ahead of the “now” when it comes to wellness travel.

The Red Mountain Resort

Part of the new transformational wellness travel trend is destinations casting guests as the hero of story-based wellness quests. With Iceland’s The Red Mountain Resort concept, the spa experience is reimagined as pure saga and poetic fantasy: you experience the emotional and sensory voyage of an ancient Icelandic hero.

The vast The Red Mountain Resort under development north of Reykjavik, Iceland is a stunning, dramatic, property rising out of the wild, craggy volcanic landscape; signaling immediately that you’ve entered an otherworldly and mystical place.

The centerpiece is an enormous spa, where guests follow the path of the heroic Bárður, a half-man, half troll who renounced the world of humans in favor of solitude and peace inside a glacier.

The guests travel through five intense emotional states: Contemplation, exposure, confrontation, clarity and enlightenment, each one expressed through a dramatic shift in Icelandic nature, replete with wind tunnels, fire baths, rain curtains, ice pools and pitch black slides. In the original saga, every time Bárður experiences an emotional change fog appears – just as it will when one enters a new “emotional zone” in the spa.

And the goal of this saga-based wellness quest is transformation through an imaginative journey (so it’s no surprise they plan a creative center for artists in residence.)

The Spa Safari

At Nihi on Sumba Island, Indonesia (the luxury-adventure-surfing-philanthropic resort vision of fashion billionaire Chris Burch voted the world’s best hotel by Travel & Leisure readers), their NihiOka Spa Safari serves up a true wellness journey.

A small group sets off in early morning for a 90-minute hike across jungles and rice paddies, stopping at a traditional village to meet locals and explore their arts and crafts. A healthy breakfast (and later lunch) is then served in open-air bales hanging over the ocean. Guests are then taken to their private cliffside room where they can intersperse swims at the private beach and pool with unlimited spa therapies – whether long massages, scrubs, reflexology or facials…at their pace until they are sated. At sunset you head back to the resort in open-air vehicles.

This unlimited approach to spa treatments doesn’t have you tick-tick-ticking down the minutes and cost of treatments – always a real happiness killer. (And the day rate for the full safari, around $345 per person, isn’t much more than a long massage at a fancy hotel).

The demand has been so strong that Nihi just added an overnight spa safari. And while not strictly a “story-driven” journey, we predict more wellness resorts will reimagine their spa experience as an active (not passive) adventure across nature with more unexpected experiences: Mixing up fitness, connection with nature, local cultural immersion, and healthy food…with treatments, to create a more immersive necklace (or circuit) of experiences – again not those scattered beads of “treatments” and “classes.”

Other Developments

And more wellness destinations exploring “ancient wisdom” are coming in 2018, like the much-anticipated opening in May of Euphoria Retreat, set near the Byzantine town of Mystras in Greece, and where it’s about personal transformation via ancient Greek wellness and philosophies.

Or the just-opened Amanyangyun near Shanghai (an incredible conservation project that relocated/restored an entire ancient Chinese village and features a cultural pavilion recreating the 17th-century “scholars’ studios” of China, where guests practice traditional arts like calligraphy and painting and watch Kunqu Opera.

And finally, Australia’s famed Peninsula Hot Springs will rewrite what it means to be simultaneously “immersed” in performance and spa. The Amphitheatre Bathing Bowl has seven pools with underwater speakers where hundreds of people can watch plays, concerts and talks – while floating in the hot springs.

If wellness programs over the last few decades have become too egocentric – too often a narrow focus on me, me, me and my betterment and beauty – this new trend signals an approach that is totally the opposite… getting guests off the well-worn, rutted road of endless obsession with self, and switching on people’s imagination and casting them in a bigger-than-me saga in the real world outside.

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