The terms and vocabulary that articulate wellness tourism and medical tourism are different.
For the purposes of communication, understanding and making the right choices, let’s be clear about the traveller profile. The desires and needs of the medical traveller and the wellness traveller are not the same and their decisions to travel are motivated by different things. Medical tourists are (largely) travelling to have a clinical procedure that may be health or aesthetically driven, may require anesthetic, a hospital and certainly the presence of medically qualified personnel. Wellness tourists are traveling to have a pleasurable, self-enhancing experience that may combine spa, healing, improving and optimising health, relaxation, personal development and a host of other self-enhancing options. Some will be seeking full immersion into a tailored wellness programme, others, a less structured feel.
Sometimes I come across medical tourism and wellness tourism combined under one umbrella, such as ‘medical and wellness tourism’. This always prompts me to enquire what the person or article is really talking about. Often, when the two terms are coined like this, the context is more weighted to medical. The issue this highlights is one of potential confusion, where consumers may expect one thing but experience another and also, confusion throughout the supply chain leading to risks of revenue loss because of unclear product descriptions or positioning. Wellness tourism and medical tourism are both valuable economy contributors in their own right. They do not need to be, nor should they be, thought of or executed, as one.
We need to keep these categories defined separately. We also need to understand the powerful wellness tourism opportunity globally – and in the Middle East/North Africa region especially – clearly…and distinctly.
Through a Middle Eastern lens
According to the Global Wellness Institute’s recent ‘Global Spa and Wellness Economy Monitor’ the Middle East and North Africa is a wellness tourism growth powerhouse: currently the second fastest growing region for revenues worldwide (at 39% growth annually), trailing only Sub-Saharan Africa’s 57% annual wellness travel revenue growth (a region which starts from a much smaller base). In addition MENA’s 39% yearly wellness tourism growth means the region is growing roughly three times faster than global wellness tourism overall (12.7% a year). There is also presence and growth in medical tourism in the Middle East too, especially in the UAE.
Consider for a moment: MENA’s wellness tourism revenues jumped from $5.3 billion USD in 2012 to $7.3 billion in 2013. Wellness-focused trips rose from 4.8 million to 7 million that same year – representing a very robust 48% growth.
Additionally, among all this explosive regional growth, the UAE is MENA’s wellness tourism leader: now generating $2.25 billion USD in annual wellness travel revenues, ahead of Morocco as $1.75 billion.
Within Middle Eastern countries, of course, the spa industry is a critical component of wellness tourism, and MENA is also the second fastest growing region (again trailing only Sub Saharan Africa (+297%) which start from a much smaller base). The Middle East/North Africa more than doubled both the number of spas (+284%) and spa revenues (+134%) since 2007. The shortfall against revenue growth likely to be the market taking a little more time to expand into the new venues.
Integrative medical expertise doesn’t make it medical travel
I know from personal experience how important it has been (and still is) to have medical expertise as an inclusive component when health enhancement and personal transition are taking place. That clinical inclusion may not be in reference to a medical procedure but may be a combination of assessment, diagnostic and monitoring within programming design and careful tailoring to improve how well we feel, how much energy we have, what we eat and how we achieve stronger emotional balance. The presence of medically qualified personnel doesn’t make it medical travel but does show an important and specific overlap within the sector expertise.
The benefits of ensuring wellness tourism and medical tourism are clearly understood and defined, far outweigh the perceived ease of mixing them together. They’re two different markets, two income streams and two opportunities to drive tourism. Switzerland is a great example of doing this really well; where the two sectors successfully exist in companionable strength, both individually and with occasional overlap for the benefit of the traveller.