Wellness tourism is not medical tourism

The Global Wellness Institute argues that wellness tourism and medical tourism are separate, but the reality is more complicated.
Wellness tourism is often confused with and included in medical tourism, by customers and destinations. An incomplete understanding of these markets and inconsistent use of terminologies by destinations, government organisations, and promotion agencies contribute to the confusion.

Causing further confusion, ‘health tourism’ can be used as a catchall to describe many types of both medical and wellness services and activities. It can range from open-heart surgery and dental care to destination spas and yoga retreats.

A recent report on global wellness tourism from the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) makes some useful comments on the difference between medical tourism and wellness tourism. It argues that wellness tourism and medical tourism exist largely in separate domains and meet different consumer needs.

Medical tourism definition

Medical tourism primarily addresses the ‘poor health’ end of the market, with patients traveling to another place for specific medical treatment or enhancements. Top medical tourism procedures include cosmetic surgery, orthopaedic surgery, cardiac surgery, and dental procedures. Patients and their families are attracted by the availability, better quality, and/or price of care at the destinations.

Successful medical tourism depends upon the status of a country’s broader medical sector, along with appropriate government regulations, patient safeguards, training standards, insurance frameworks, travel and visa restrictions, and other issues that drive the patient’s experience and treatment outcomes.

Wellness tourism definition

Wellness tourism however attracts consumers who are at the opposite end of the wellness continuum. These travellers are seeking activities and destinations that extend their wellness lifestyle and help them proactively maintain and improve their health and wellbeing.

The appeal and success of wellness tourism depends on an entirely different set of factors, business models, customer mind-sets, human resources, and industry culture, and it is more closely aligned with leisure, recreation, and hospitality.

Is the reality a mix of the two?

Even the GWI admits that there is some overlap between medical tourism and wellness tourism. For example, some top-end destination spas and many traditional health resorts across Europe offer treatments that can be both curative and preventive in nature, and that are typically administered by licensed medical professionals. These include DNA testing, executive check-ups, acupuncture, detoxes and cleanses, hydrotherapy, and complementary and holistic medicine services (see IMTJ article ‘Hotel or medical centre? Switzerland combines both’).

In general the types of visitors, activities, services, businesses, and regulations involved are very different between medical tourism and wellness tourism, even though they may share a dependence on a region’s basic tourism and hospitality infrastructure and amenities.

Some destinations will disagree with GWI. Several top medical tourism destinations promote and offer wellness packages that include check-ups and health screening at hospitals and clinics. By contrast, traditional medicine promoters in India, China and Korea often regard these as part of medial tourism rather than wellness tourism, as they are seeking to ensure only licensed practitioners offer these services.

Given these overlaps between medical tourism and wellness tourism, perhaps it is more realistic to suggest destinations and statistics on both areas have to be careful not to be too dogmatic on the difference.