The Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly shelled out US$10 million (Dh36.7m) on a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, New York, this month. But it wasn’t any ordinary inner-city apartment. It had vitamin C-infused showers, purified air and water, aromatherapy vents and its own “wellness concierge”.
These days, “wellness” is everywhere and you don’t need to be a multimillionaire to experience it. From the proliferation of yoga studios to the rise of healthy food delivery services and the creation of smartphone apps teaching us how to meditate, everyone is boarding the wellness bus. We’re even taking holidays to enhance our well-being.
Wellness is one of the strongest growing sectors of the tourism industry and the Middle East is expected to lead this growth into 2017. This prediction is backed up by this week’s announcement that the industry heavyweight SHA Wellness Clinic is launching a health retreat in Dubai, its first international resort outside of Spain. Anni Hood, the tourism and government liaison for the Global Wellness Tourism Congress, defines wellness tourism – an industry worth US$439 billion globally – as “all travel associated with enhancing one’s personal well-being”. But, as many people wrongly assume, it’s not just spas. “Spas are all about wellness, but wellness is not just about spas. It’s the pursuit of maintaining one’s personal well-being,” Hood says. “It could be being in nature, a trip to the desert to watch the sunset, walking in nature, being in the Dead Sea. It’s not necessarily going to a spa.”
So why are we so eager to spend our money and annual leave on wellness? Is it because of our rising stress levels, soaring rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, or just a desire to get back to a more simple way of living? It’s all of these and more, according to Hood. “At one end of the spectrum, consumers are making decisions around travel that is connected to them being as well as they are in normal life, but at the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got incredible levels of obesity, incredible growth levels of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, related cancers and so on.”
Dr Elisabeth Makk, the medical director at Madinat Jumeirah’s Talise Spa, says that people are taking more responsibility for their own health and are searching for ways to prevent illnesses from taking hold in the future. “They are looking for high-quality, personalised programmes relevant to their physical, emotional and psychological changes. Wellness programmes allow individuals to take increased responsibility for their health behaviour. Stress and inflammation are the number-one silent killers nowadays, and guests and tourists are turning to well-planned health holidays to boost their energy levels and improve their lifestyle,” Makk explains.
Linda Brahmi, who is a senior legal counsel, and the public-relations account manager Sara Kilani know all too well the effects of stress on their health. The two friends have travelled to Sri Lanka and Bali for yoga retreats and say that these types of holidays help unwind both their body and mind. “For me, it’s about beautiful surroundings, sharing some good energy with lovely people and really giving myself the time to think, or not think, and fully immerse myself in what I’m doing,” explains Kilani. “This continuing state of relaxation over the course of several days does wonders for my health and my immune system, not to mention lowering my overall stress levels.”
Brahmi agrees: “I take these types of holidays to regain some kind of balance between my body and my mind, as they allow me to relax and connect with my body and my mind.”
Kilani and Brahmi fit the mould of most wellness travellers – someone who is healthy, but travels to maintain, manage or improve health and well-being. A wellness traveller is motivated by desire for healthy living, disease prevention, stress reduction, management of poor lifestyle habits or simply seeking an authentic local experience.
The Middle East is tipped to lead the growth in the wellness tourism sector, but it still lags behind traditional wellness destinations such as Switzerland, Japan and Thailand. Despite this, hoteliers in the region are recognising the potential of the sector and capitalising on authentic local experiences.
One example is the Dead Sea, where people have travelled for centuries to experience the therapeutic benefits. Gerard Hotelier, Mövenpick Hotels and Resorts’ vice president of operations, describes the Dead Sea as the world’s first natural spa. “Many people come to our Dead Sea resort in Jordan for medical reasons. It’s one of the lowest points on Earth, so there is a lot of oxygen, and the mud and seawater are good for the skin. The magnesium in the water and mud is also good for arthritis,” Hotelier explains. The resort’s therapy centre offers treatments using Dead Sea mud and salt, and has also introduced holistic lifestyle practices such as yoga and meditation, detox programmes and healthy nutrition to appeal to wellness travellers.
Recognising that wellness travellers are interested in the health of their bodies as well as the planet, Mövenpick has also introduced healthy dishes to its menus, using locally sourced produce. “We have developed dishes that are lower in calories and fat, but very tasty and made from fresh, local products, where possible. In Jordan, 90 per cent of the vegetables are sourced locally and 100 per cent of the honey is local. It helps to protect the environment, which is important in a place like Jordan, where water availability is an issue,” Hotelier says.
Wellness travellers are educated and discerning, and many choose a destination for cultural experiences as much as the ability to optimise their health. Hood says the Middle East has a rich tradition of hammams and Turkish baths, and many resorts are enticing guests with these cultural experiences. Anantara is one brand in the UAE that has embraced the hammam experience and has even introduced hot-yoga classes in its facility at Abu Dhabi’s Eastern Mangroves Hotel and Spa. The newly opened spa at Anantara Dubai The Palm Resort and Spa also offers a hammam and ayurvedic therapies, as well as locally inspired treatments using dates and seawater pearls from the Arabian Gulf. A member of the Healing Hotels of the World, Six Senses Zighy Bay on Oman’s Musandam Peninsula offers wellness programmes, such as weight loss and detox, and hosts visiting practitioners and specialists from around the world, while using organic, locally grown produce in all its restaurants.
But are these initiatives enough to encourage people to stay in the Middle East purely for wellness?
Livia Anzaldo leads wellness holidays to Sri Lanka, India and Nepal through her Dubai-based company Yoga Retreats, but has also held popular local retreats in Ras Al Khaimah and Oman. She says that combining yoga with adventure in an outdoor setting is “the way to go”.
“People living in big cities with stressful schedules are thirsty for the outdoors, especially in Dubai in the winter months. They are looking for a break from their busy lifestyles, to challenge themselves, meet like-minded people, explore a new culture and, of course, take daily yoga classes,” Anzaldo explains.
“The local retreats have been popular due to time constraints. We have had between 15 and 25 people attend the local retreats. The international ones require at least four or five days off work, which is not always possible, and the cost is higher, too.”
Kilani echoes this view, recalling a two-day yoga and meditation retreat at the Dead Sea in Jordan, which included lectures and a blessing by a Tibetan monk, outdoor yoga, guided meditation and floating in the salty water. “I quite enjoy local retreats as they are less expensive, less travel time is required and there is less stress involved in travelling to the retreat. I would be very open to doing a two- or three-day retreat in the UAE.”
The Madinat Jumeirah has responded to the demand and in September held its first yoga retreat. Its second instalment this weekend includes yoga classes, healthy breakfasts, a juicing class and seminar, yoga-theory class, spa treatment, computerised skin analysis and beach access, with the option of accommodation. Similar retreats have also been held at Abu Dhabi’s St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort.
The future looks healthy for the UAE’s wellness tourism sector, which is expected to welcome one million visitors, an increase of 17.9 per cent, each year until 2017. We wonder whether Leonardo DiCaprio will be among them.