Last year saw a growing excitement in the spa industry about the global increase in wellness tourism and speaking at the inaugural Global Wellness Tourism Congress in New Delhi in October (see SB13/4 p70), Jean-Claude Baumgarten – former president of the World Trade & Tourism Council – said wellness tourism is “poised to reshape tourism as we know it,” while SRI International, which revealed its Global Wellness Tourism Economy report, expects wellness tourism to increase at an annual rate of 9.1 per cent up to 2017.
“Millions more [people] every year [are] demanding destinations that deliver physical, emotional, spiritual and environmental health – along with enjoyment,” said Baumgarten.
200 year old tradition
Such demands are comprehensively met in central and eastern Europe, a region which has had wellness at the core of its tourism offering for nearly 200 years. It saw early bloom in Latvia and Estonia, where Tsar Nicholas I built a number of state bathing establishments so the gentry could benefit from the natural environment and the fresh sea air along the Baltic coast.
In the 19th century, Czechoslovakia became the gold standard for Europe’s nobility who spent weeks taking the waters in the spa towns of Marianbad and Carlsbad to counter the effects of their over-indulgent lifestyles.
The sanatorium culture of the Soviet era of the 20th century was, it could be argued, ahead of its time, with state-funded programmes of rest and rejuvenation for everyone from party officials to the proletariat, including war veterans, sportspeople and astronauts.
Now, more than 20 years after independence, it’s time to put this flank of Europe – from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south – under the spotlight once again for meeting the needs of today’s wellness tourism sector. Many of the region’s health resorts are set up for dedicated, multi-week stays, offering a wide combination of authentic practices, doctor-led expertise and natural resources with a profound propensity for healing which have stood the test of time.
Moreover, many wellness destinations in the territory are surrounded by beautiful natural environments offering wide-ranging outdoor sports and activities and fresh, local cuisine, which also makes the region a prime focus for contiguous sectors such as eco, culinary, sports and medical tourism.
As central and eastern Europe continues to adjust to a free market economy the wellness offering is a transitory mix of old world glamour, under-funded state establishments and those finding their feet under private ownership. Added to this is a slew of places under reconstruction, plus new-build properties beautifully designed and fitted out with the latest equipment and technology.
At this critical juncture, we take a look at some of the strengths and challenges of the distinct central and eastern European model.
Expertise. Central and eastern Europe spa destinations are rooted in ‘heal stays’ and ‘cure programmes’ for chronic conditions which means that high levels of medical expertise are available to the wellness guest. According to Slovakia’s Ministry of Health, the country is among the top three in Europe for medical education. Health Spa Pieštany, the Slovak destination by Danubius Hotels Group, has a generous number of 350 therapists and doctors for guests across the four-hotel, 1,112-bed resort.
Therapist training across the region is rigorous. In Hungary, massage therapists are called therapeutic masseurs/masseuses and need 700 hours of practice, after a two-year study of theory, before they’re eligible to work.
Zsófia Hellinger, spa manager at Four Seasons Budapest, says: “Eastern European spas may not be the most soulful, but massage therapists have a strong technique that delivers results.”
At Latvia’s Amber Spa Boutique Hotel (see SB10/3 p56) one of the hydrotherapists has a medical degree and a two-year qualification in balneotherapy, while at Lithuania’s Spa Vilnius in Druskininkai (see SB13/1 p68) the signature treatments which focus on the healing properties of local amber have been devised by a university professor who spends three hours a day furthering his research into the therapeutic power of this unique resin.
Natural resources. At the core of the wellness approach in this part of the world is the healing power of natural elements such as thermal springs, healing muds, salts, gases, minerals, herbs, natural produce and climate. The science behind such natural resources was the subject of extensive research by scientists and chemists in the 18th and 19th centuries and only after meticulous study did physicians devise protocols for specific health disorders which continue to be followed to this day. Prescriptions include baths, inhalations and drinking mineral or thermal waters; and wraps, baths and insertions using local mud deposits, to give just two examples. Historically, such protocols have been proven to have a beneficial effect on a range of conditions spanning digestive, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal ailments. For the wellness traveller they have powerful relaxing and detoxifying effects and are offered as part of dedicated wellness programmes or after consultation with an on-site doctor.
Varied and good value offerings. The price point for spas and health resorts across the region is highly competitive due to the low cost of natural resources and lower staff wages. Many facilities offer general packages from traditional ‘spa stays’ to family or weight loss programmes. Most programmes incorporate a consultation with a doctor – even for the wellness guest.
Toward the top of the price range is a Traditional Spa Stay Light at the five-star Danubius Health Spa Resort Thermia Palace in Slovakia. Its seven-night, half-board programme including a doctor consultation and end-of-stay medical report, plus diagnostic testing and 18 treatments starts at €115 (US$156, £95) per person per night during low season.
At Tervise Paradiis in Estonia, a modernised former sanatorium from the 1970s, the full-board price for a four-night general package, including three different procedures each day on recommendation of the doctor, plus use of the extensive water facilities and morning exercise programme starts at €57 (US$78, £47) per night in low season.
A number of resorts in the region believe in the importance of family programmes where children take treatments too. State run and private companies also send employees for recuperation from burn out.
Issue of perception. Central and eastern Europe can suffer from a lack of understanding beyond its borders and the region’s spas are sometimes still regarded as relics of a bygone era with little appeal for the international tourist, when often the reverse is the case. Many properties meet, if not exceed, international standards in terms of value for money, expert therapists who deliver results and fresh, healthy cuisine. They fall in line with today’s appeal for a holistic approach and for non-invasive,
“This region is a leader in the field of wellness stemming from the medical approach that uses natural elements. The thermal assets are very good. It just needs to be better translated to the rest of the world, who don’t know,” says Lázsló Puczkó, co-author of the recent book Health, Tourism and Hospitality.
Issue of definition. With the rise in wellness tourism comes the idea that wellness is a preventative approach which focuses on personal responsibility for maintaining an optimal state of wellbeing; a step on from the spa concept which has tended to point to relaxation and pampering. This understanding is reversed in central and eastern Europe where ‘spa’ has been the mainstay of rigorous, curative programmes based around the healing powers of mineral and thermal springs. It’s only in recent years that facilities have added what they refer to as wellness programmes, including facials and massages, in order to broaden their market appeal to short-term guests, who want to come purely for rest and relaxation.
Hans Dieter Bergmann, director of sales and marketing at Health Spa Pieštany, admits to using words like pampering and wellbeing in marketing materials in order to fill up the weekend business and reach new markets. “We’re a health spa and medical resort,” he says. “This means different things to different people so we add key words to respond to market pressure but it leads to confusion. We know our medical side is second to none. Now we pack it up with five-star services.”
International service standards and facilities. Bergmann says that an increasing number of spas, like his own Thermia Palace in Pieštany, are investing in upgrading services, in terms of accommodation, amenities and communal facilities. Many new-build properties embrace an international aesthetic for natural materials. Yet it’s a mark of the transition in this part of the world that some places simply have basic bricks and mortar facilities that don’t always meet the expectations of an international wellness traveller. There can also be a language barrier. But when the treatments are so good and the expertise of therapists so high, such issues should not present an obstacle to such an holistic and affordable wellness offering.