The demand for wellness tourism has been rapidly growing since 2013 and in 2019 it was reportedly growing three times faster than general tourism. The demand for wellness offerings is set to rise significantly after the risk of COVID-19 dissipates, as visitors seek out opportunities to destress, rejuvenate and rebuild their lives.
Travel Agents Selling the Caribbean (TASC) a grassroots organization based in North America that advocates for Caribbean tourism, hosted a webinar this week to explore the vast potential of wellness tourism. As part of the National Wellness Month campaign, a panel of Caribbean wellness enthusiasts was assembled to discuss the topic “Wellness Tourism: Health is the New Wealth.” The discussion centered on how the Caribbean wellness product can be repackaged as a holistic experience that addresses safety protocols, while meeting new customer expectations.
Aidan McCauley, a local wellness advocate and Owner of Sugar Ridge Resort, represented Antigua and Barbuda and highlighted the diversity of wellness offerings throughout the destination. Since the property opened 10 years ago, Sugar Ridge has focused on incorporating wellness into its design, amenities, services, and programming. The resort features a myriad of wellness offerings that focus on nutrition, movement, relaxation and rejuvenation.
The other featured panelists were:
– Stephanie Rest, Caribbean Wellness and Education based in Washington, D.C.
– Karen Birch-Ebanks – Caribbean Wellness Advocate, based in Jamaica
– Carmen Ortela, Cofounder – Bana, Puerto Rico
– Paulette Clarke – Group Spa Operations Mgr, Sandals International, based in Jamaica
– David Bowen – Yoga Retreats, Turks & Caicos
– Dr.Samantha Semmalar Mahalingam, Ojas Spa & Wellness, St. Lucia
– Kallis St. Jules- La Mer Spa, Bay Gardens Resort, St. Lucia
Following a brief introduction by the moderator, Derede Whitlock of DSW Consulting Media, panelists weighed in on how their businesses have been impacted by health and safety protocols. They identified a number of industry best practices that have been adopted, as well as product modifications that have been made to protect guests and staff. Noting the relatively low rate of COVID-19 infection throughout the Caribbean, there was general consensus that leaders throughout the region had taken the right steps in safeguarding lives and livelihoods. Wellness tourism has inspired the adoption of healthy behaviors and growth opportunities to maintain greater human connections while meeting physical distancing requirements.
The restrictions on fitness centers, adventure tours and other opportunities for physical activity, have put enormous pressure on visitors in maintaining their physical and mental wellbeing while on vacation. However, hiking and outdoor yoga have emerged as two experiences that are growing significantly, allowing guests to spend more time enjoying nature in small groups, while remaining active.
“Hiking is a great tool during COVID as therapy for the mind, body and soul. When visitors come to visit, it is supposed to be a once in a lifetime experience and we have to find new attractions to keep them engaged,“ said Aidan McCauley. In addition to Sugar Ridge, a wellness resort in Antigua, he also owns Hike Caribbean and Yoga Antigua. McCauley believes that the demand for hiking among locals and visitors will continue to grow post COVID-19. He encourages Caribbean governments to develop more hiking trails with proper signage and maintenance crews. He referenced a new 26-mile island trail that is currently being developed in Antigua and Barbuda as “a good move in the right direction.”
Carmen Portela, an advocate for sustainable living, also referenced the need for a modern trail system in her hometown of Puerto Rico. She believes that it would help to showcase natural resources such as the beaches, mountains, valleys and the healing properties that the destination has to offer. Portela also indicated that the forest therapy product that is being developed on the island, will capitalize on the unique sights and sounds of the rainforest that can improve the well-being of visitors and locals.
Yoga guru, David Bowen from the Turks & Caicos, noted a growing interest in yoga throughout the Caribbean. “By practicing yoga, we promote values that inspire a peaceful, environmental stewardship for the betterment of society and the earth. There should be more opportunities for staff and guests to experience wellness together by creating a healthy community. It’s about the sea, sand and people,” said Bowen. He called for the development of a regional training institute to train more yoga instructors. He believes that current technology can also be leveraged to provide more yoga training and personalized meditation services.
Bay Gardens Resort in St. Lucia has packaged a range of wellness treatments and activities to help guests destress and detox during their stay. The resort was represented by Dr. Samantha Semmalar Mahalingam, who also has her own local practice Ojas Spa & Wellness. This specialist in Indian Holistic medicine, treats chronic illnesses using yoga, breathing techniques [Pranayama] and different types of meditation. She also offers Nutritional and Lifestyle consultations and performs Acupuncture. Dr Samantha noted increased demand for immune boosting nutraceuticals and other preventative therapies derived from local plants. “In the Caribbean we have an abundance of herbs, coconuts, turmeric, moringa, mango and tamarind that I use as part of my ‘hot herbal bundle’ massage in my detox treatments,” she said.
Many resorts in Antigua and Barbuda have already begun to offer garden tours to promote the medicinal properties of the local plant life. At Sugar Ridge, Vorn, the in-house tour guide, who grew up in the local community, provides hands-on insights on the local flora. Guests can enjoy eco therapy in the natural environment away from the crowds. This type of authentic experience allows smaller parties to see more and do more, while being able to maintain physical distancing requirements.
The wellness webinar also cited a growing preference for secluded hotels and villas as many visitors opt for more privacy and a slower pace. Sailing vacations are also another area where Antigua and Barbuda is uniquely positioned to address the needs of those in search of ‘wellness on the water.’
For those who crave extreme adventure, Antigua and Barbuda’s many offshore islands allow guests an opportunity to stay far away from others while engaging in thrilling activities — kayaking through thick mangroves, or mountain climbing to scale exceptionally high cliffs. Aidan McCauley shared details of a recent adventure to Redonda, a once in a lifetime experience to enjoy sailing, rock climbing and a nature adventure.
While the negative consequences of the health crisis have had a profound effect on the livelihood of the Caribbean, despite these times of extreme uncertainty, there will be many opportunities to position the Caribbean as a wellness escape. Wellness experts predict significant growth in wellness tourism, as well as vacation experiences that involve nature. Visitors will opt for remote attractions like the Frigate Bird Sanctuary in Barbuda, rather than traditionally bustling tourist hotspots. Antigua and Barbuda is uniquely positioned to deliver a range of wellness offerings to improve the mind, body and soul.
Attracting wellness tourists can also potentially increase profit margins, as tourism enterprises are able to charge more, based on the added value that wellness experiences can provide. As the region reopens to visitors, there are many opportunities for Antigua and Barbuda to continue to leverage our local culture, foods, agriculture, beaches and other natural assets to differentiate our wellness offerings. Many tourists seek out specific locations depending on the type wellness experiences that are available. The millennial generation in particular, are interested in the unique offerings of a location and how they differ from other destinations. It is therefore imperative that Antigua and Barbuda’s marketing themes and messages continue to highlight the destination’s unique selling points in the wellness tourism space.
The author is a seasoned marketing professional and served as Antigua and Barbuda’s Tourism Director to the USA from 2004 – 2014. As President of DSW Consulting Media, a marketing and public relations consultancy, she develops leading edge solutions for a varied client base. Whitlock is a member of Sales and Marketing Executives International (SMEI) and the Antigua and Barbuda Hotels and Tourist Association (ABHTA). As a Senior Administrator on the Board of Travel Agents Selling the Caribbean (TASC) she is proud to be a part of the mission to strengthen the region’s position in the global tourism market.