Give a choice to anyone between travel for adventure and travel for relaxation, chances are the latter will get a bigger vote in today’s time. For India, ayurveda, yoga, meditation, and wellness in general, have always been major cultural exports. But now, it is assuming an exciting form with a rise in wellness tourism. Travellers, both domestic and international, are increasingly travelling to wellness retreats to satiate their travel cravings while catering to their health and well-being.
According to the 2023 travel predictions by online travel agency Booking.com, “seeking to recentre the mind, meditation and mindfulness getaways are ever popular with 70% of Indian travellers”. While 63% aim to hop to a silent retreat, 59% are keen for a health hiatus to focus on physical and mental health, the study adds.
SOTC Travel, too, is witnessing “an uptick of 32% for yoga tourism, rejuvenation and wellness getaways, and digital detox holidays,” says Daniel D’Souza, the digital travel agency’s president and country head — holidays. Such gateways are increasingly getting popular among millennials and young professionals, he adds.
Another interesting trend is its greater traction among domestic travellers compared to international, as per Aditya Gupta, senior vice-president, hotels, and holidays, Yatra.com.
Not only wellness, but India is also the land of spirituality, and at times, it gets difficult to discern one from the other. In conjunction with that, travel agency MakeMyTrip has seen a 70% increase since 2020 in bookings for its packages namely ‘Spiritual Uttarakhand getaway,’ ‘Spiritual heritage tour of South India,’ ‘Tour of Indore & Ujjain with Temple,’ a spokesperson says.
Speaking on the possible reason for such an interest in wellness tourism, online travel company EaseMyTrip’s co-founder Rikant Pittie says, “The mundane lives after the lockdown brought back the corporate routines and sedentary lifestyles accompanied by stress and mental pressures. Hence, people are increasingly looking for gateways to revitalise their physical and mental health.”
A wellness hotspot
If you’re looking for wellness gateways, no need to look further than your own backyard. Home to ancient health, wellness and healing practices, India offers a rich blend of wellness themes such as treatment centres, spa resorts, and wellness retreats providing preventative health care, stress management, exercise programmes, and detox treatments. “These are available from the Himalayas to the coasts of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa. In fact, states like Uttarakhand and Kerala are being developed as hubs of wellness tourism,” Pittie says.
Ananda in the Himalayas, Somatheeram Ayurveda Resort and Carnoustie Ayurveda & Wellness Resort in Kerala, Vana Retreat in Dehradun, Ashiyana: Yoga and Spa Village in Goa, Atmantan in Pune, The Leela Palace in Udaipur, SwaSwara in Gokarna, Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa in Gulmarg, Hilton Shillim Estate Retreat and Spa, and Nimba Nature Cure Village in Gujarat are some of the popular facilities that offer mindfulness and well-being services to the wellness seekers.
Given what India has to offer, the health and wellness market in the country is expected to exhibit a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.45% in 2022-2027, says a report by market research company IMARC Group that was released in August last year. “Apart from this, the rising reliance on healing practices like naturopathy, coupled with the rapid growth of health tourism, is positively influencing the market in the country,” the report adds.
“Given the pandemic-induced stress, corporates will show increased interest in organising off-sites that include yoga activities at popular yoga/wellness retreats,” says Rajeev Kale, president and country head, holidays, MICE, visa — Thomas Cook (India), referring to the trends around wellness travel.
“In addition to international tourism, domestic yoga tourism will also witness an uptick as people are seeking to holiday in their home country. Traditional Ayurvedic resorts, destination spas, and wellness retreats offering yoga are expected to further increase,” he adds. SOTC Travel also anticipates a rising interest in responsible and sustainable tourism, which has especially garnered interest among millennials.
A Himalayan retreat
Situated in the Himalayan foothills in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand is Ananda, a luxury destination spa and wellness retreat.
Like other wellness facilities across India, Ananda, too, is witnessing an uptick in visitors since the pandemic. “Demand for comprehensive wellness programmes from Indian customers has increased by more than 50% post-pandemic,” says COO Mahesh Natarajan. “Foreign demand, too, is steadily increasing in line with the reopening of international travel,” he adds.
Apart from the rising awareness towards health and wellness, there is also “a growing belief in holistic wellness, going back to basics, opening up to ancient wisdom and the oldest sciences of healing such as Ayurveda and yoga,” Natarajan says.
“Although we always have had clients from across the world, what is interesting is how people view wellness today versus the pre-pandemic era. Wellness retreats are now being actively considered for both long-term prevention of diseases as well as curative well-being solutions. The wellness customer has matured significantly and is now actively looking for that comprehensive one to two-week break in the year to pause, reflect and re-set their mind and body. Moreover, they now acknowledge the importance of their mental and emotional health and no longer shy away from wanting to address them,” Natarajan explains.
While, earlier, Ananda garnered much of its clients from metros like Delhi and Mumbai, it is witnessing a growing awareness and interest among the smaller cities too. “In pre-covid times, international travellers constituted 60% of Ananda’s business. While that number has dropped by about 30% due to travel restrictions imposed since 2020, we have over the past four months seen a significant recovery and are optimistic that soon, we will be back to our earlier numbers. Ananda’s top international clients come in from the US, UK, Europe, Russia and the Middle-eastern regions,” Natarajan says.
Ananda’s wellness services revolve around Ayurveda, yoga and meditation along with international experiences such as sensuous aromatherapy, pressure points and tension release work through reflexology, healing Tibetan Kuu Nye, etc. Its cuisine, too, incorporates key principles from Ayurveda, which takes into consideration not just taste, but suitability to body type.
“While detox and weight management have long been Ananda’s top-selling programmes, the international client today is leaning toward authentic Ayurvedic programmes such as Ayurvedic rejuvenation and the traditional Panchakarma. Another trend that we see post-pandemic due to epidemic levels of stress globally is the adoption of the Ananda stress management programme,” Natarajan says. Interest has also grown in curative treatments such as those for hormonal imbalances, hypertension, etc.
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Speaking on the rise of wellness tourism in India, he says it is symptomatic of the rise in wellness tourism globally. “For the past four to five years, there has been a heightened awareness on the need for investing in one’s health and wellbeing through a wellness retreat,” he adds.
A treatment approach
For bengaluru-based Soukya, a holistic health centre, the demand is continuously rising. “While, earlier, we had a waiting period of one month, now it is three,” says founder Dr Issac Mathai, adding: “The number of people seeking post-Covid therapy has recently grown with a focus on health improvement.”
Situated in Samethanahalli near Whitefield, Bengaluru, the wellness centre has attracted a high-profile clientele that include Britain’s King Charles and Queen Consort Camilla.
The retreat offers a treatment approach integrating India’s age-old health and wellness systems such as Ayurveda, yoga, and naturopathy, apart from other therapies. The services it offers fall into two programmes—‘Health’ that helps “cleanse, de-stress, soothe and revitalise the mind, body and spirit” and ‘Medical’ where “we treat acute, chronic and rare and complex conditions,” Soukya says on its website. It claims to treat medical conditions such as addictive disorders, lifestyle and metabolic disorders, cancer rehabilitation, and mental health, etc. “Treatments are medically oriented and supervised by doctors,” Mathai says.
“For this, every guest goes through a health evaluation by doctors, qualified and experienced in their respective system of medicine. Based on a joint review and blood reports, the treatment protocol is designed to address the individual needs of the person. The programme is monitored and reviewed daily, to enable any change in the treatment protocol, if required, enabling a highly individualised treatment programme. We provide authentic Ayurvedic, Panchakarma, yoga, and naturopathic treatments and complementary therapies that are prescribed, monitored, and reviewed by our doctors and delivered with the help of skilled therapists,” he explains.
Although 70% of Soukya’s clientele are from the UK, US, Europe, Middle-east, Russia, Africa, Australia and New Zealand, people also arrive from New Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad, etc.
“In a span of 20 years, we have had guests from over 120 countries,” the founder adds.
In God’s own country
While international travellers constituted 90% of CGH Earth’s guests at its Ayurveda-based healing retreats in Kerala before the pandemic, it has changed now, with domestic guests dominating.
“During the pandemic and post-pandemic, we have seen a growth of Indian visitors to account for about 70% of our visitors,” says Mridula Jose, vice president — marketing at CGH Earth Group. “In fact, Kalari Kovilakom (one of the company’s two wellness retreats) had a steady flow of Indians coming for medical treatments even during the pandemic when travel had not yet picked up. We are now seeing a steady return of visitors from foreign countries and a growing segment within India. This trend is expected to grow in the coming months,” she adds.
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While having hotels and resorts dating back to the 1950s, CGH Earth diversified into wellness in 2005 with the start of Kalari Kovilakom, a palace set against the backdrop of the Nelliampathy hills in Kerala, that was converted for Ayurvedic healthcare. Kalari Kovilakom offers detox, stress management, weight management, immunity boosting, and other services with a focus on Ayurveda. The following year, it started SwaSwara, a wellness retreat on Om Beach in Gokarna, which was a bridge between experiential holidays and healing journeys. “SwaSwara means my inner voice, and as the name suggests, it was created as a holiday experience to relax, reset and refocus oneself,” the CGH Earth executive explains.
At SwaSwara, one can embark on a well-being journey through close interactions in nature, hiking, bird watching, creative explorations through art, healthy cooking, Ayurveda, yoga, meditation and more. Due to the growing demand at Kalari Kovilakom, the group started Kalari Rasayana at Paravoor, a small hamlet in southern Kerala. “The focus of our treatments at both these centres is to treat the root cause of the condition or disease and not just the symptoms that manifest,” Jose explains. It also has Prakriti Shakti, a clinic of natural medicine, which focuses on naturopathy.
The pandemic has stirred a trend in people seeking wellness options for issues such as long Covid, lifestyle disorders, stress, and stress-induced disorders, insomnia, etc, Jose says. “A programme that is gaining popularity is the preventive healthcare programme over 14 -21 days— immunity boosting, yearly detox and cleansing. This is something that CGH Earth wellness has always been promoting and laying emphasis on, and post-Covid we see more and more people subscribing to the concept of wellness holidays where the focus is on themselves and holistic health,” she adds.
Away from city life
“Since Covid-19, the focus has increased on preventive self-care. Health is now an immediate requirement and seen as a prerequisite for happiness,” say Nikhil and Sharmilee Kapur, founders of Atmantan Wellness Centre in Mulshi, Maharashtra. “This is the norm now. Hence, the willingness has grown in transforming to a healthier version of oneself,” they add.
Opened on World Health Day on April 7, 2016, Atmantan received the National Tourism Award for the Best Wellness Centre (western region) last year. Focusing on traditional or alternative medicine and well-being, among the services it offers include a spa retreat, master cleanse, weight loss, yoga retreat, Ayurveda, emotional health, restorative physiotherapy, etc. The idea was to “create a place of healing where people would transform as they achieved the optimal way of living,” the founders say.
“Prescribed by the consulting doctor based on your health conditions and symptoms master cleanse enables a prime cellular detoxification of body, mind and soul,” it involves treatments ranging from lymphatic drainage, cupping, moxibustion, to the art of open colon hydrotherapy, and the Chinese Taoist Chi Nei Tsang treatment, it says on its website. Those dealing with weight issues are recommended weight balance retreat. After an in-depth fitness assessment, one is guided through a diverse exercise regime including functional training, kickboxing, hiking, strength training, core building, pilates, cross training and anti-gravity forms of exercise.
The facility also houses restaurants, which provide therapeutic medicinal gastronomy and prescribe balanced meals that are both nutritious and offer satiety. Then there is the Ayurveda Panchakarma (pancha meaning five, and karma meaning action) retreat, which involves a five-step process to detoxify the human body and draw out toxins. Those dealing with lifestyle and other diseases, such as obesity, thyroid, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, etc, are recommended the natural healing retreat.
For the duo, for a long time, their clientele majorly consisted of 40- to 65-year-olds with an almost equal distribution between men and women. But that has changed recently. “Now, we are getting many young clients as well.
Covid has stirred interest among Indians to opt for wellness as a tourism gateway, as Atmantan’s experience shows. “Post-Covid, 98% of our clientele are Indians and our residential wellness programmes have gained much traction,” they say. Since it is located near Mumbai, a majority of people arrive from there. However, Covid has ensured that more and more people from other regions opt for a healing holiday there. “In fact, our share of Mumbai travelers has come down to 53% (from 71% pre-Covid) and we are getting new clients from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Delhi-NCR and Punjab,” the founders say.
Domestic travellers spend an average of 11 nights at the retreat. Emotional healing, stress management, obesity, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), gut ailments, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), hypothyroid, and auto-immune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis being the top ailments for which they seek help. “We have a team of 23 doctors and all our guests are under a personalised doctor-guided programme,” the founders share.
The location, too, plays a role here. Away from the hustle and bustle of city life, Mulshi is an offbeat location but not for a wellness retreat. “Wellness travellers generally look for locations away from city life and have a healing potential,” Kapur says.
India’s traditional healing systems, especially Ayurveda and yoga, have taken the world by storm. Evidently, Atmantan attracts international clientele too. Although currently, they make up for 2% of its total guests, the founders expect it to surge to 4% by March, 2023. They stay for 14 days on average.
Without divulging details, Kapur speaks of his expansion plans. “We are looking at building a complete wellness ecosystem that includes various versions of wellness hospitality. It will be like a hub and spoke model,” he says, adding: “After all, everyone now knows that wellness hospitality models make good business sense. We predict that in the coming years, there won’t be hospitality without wellness. Wellness is the new leisure,” they add.