Since my late twenties I have been fascinated by the subject of human wellbeing or wellness and its relationship to both leisure and travel. Travel has always been such an important part of my own life, not least because I started life as a linguist and studied five languages apart from my native English. I was fascinated by the cultural context in which these languages developed, which also led me to take an interest in cultural tourism, another important branch of my research in tourism. However, here I would like to talk about wellness tourism because it is a subject that has been close to my heart for a number of reasons over the past 18 years.
I first heard the term ‘wellness’ from the recently and sadly departed Professor Tej Vir Singh after I had published a Research Report in Tourism Recreation Research in 2003 on what I had termed ‘holistic holidays’ (Smith, 2003). I was interested in tourism experiences that help to reconcile body, mind and spirit. It should be noted that I was in my early thirties, single and childless with a focus on career development. There is no doubt that I was soul-searching and questioning my direction in life and a certain degree of existential self-indulgence was part of this process! In addition, I had become passionate about yoga and had recently undertaken a Thai massage course in Thailand. I was even wondering whether to leave academia and pursue an alternative career. My colleague and friend from the University of Greenwich Dr Catherine Kelly and I had been researching holistic retreat centres, including a short research trip to Goa in India together. We were fascinated by what we termed ‘journeys of the self’ and this became our Editorial title for a Special Issue of Tourism Recreation Research in 2006 (Smith & Kelly, 2006a; Smith & Kelly, 2006b) commissioned by Tej Vir Singh over breakfast at a conference in Austria. We wanted to entitle it ‘Holistic Tourism’ but he recommended using the term ‘Wellness’. This was several years before wellness become a global buzzword and an ubiquitous label for innumerous products and services.
So what is it that fascinated me about wellness? I studied French and German at University and I was especially drawn to French existentialism and German expressionism. These philosophies or movements seem to be somewhat incompatible with optimism and wellness drawing as they do on human suffering and angst. However, they also focus very much on the human subject, on ‘being-in-the-world’, the self, individualism, choice, freedom and authenticity. They address issues of social change and spiritual crisis, but there were also ‘happy’ existentialists like Albert Camus who famously stated that ‘the point of life is living’ as well as advocating rebellion against the human condition. To me, nothing is more interesting than the human condition, but unlike some other eminent scholars, I did not choose to explore dark tourism, which also affords many insights into the human condition, I rather followed in the footsteps of researchers who had been inspired by positive psychology. This included the late, great Philip Pearce as well as Margaret Deery, Sebastien Filep and Jeroen Nawijn (Filep & Deery, 2010; Philip, Filep & Ross, 2011; Nawijn 2011). Their work on tourists and happiness or subjective wellbeing provided considerable insights into the contribution that tourism makes to human happiness. Personally, I also prefer to use the term ‘wellbeing’ when discussing human lives as it provides much more scope for academic research even though it is extremely broad (see our Annals of Tourism article Smith & Diekmann, 2017 for an in-depth analysis of the relationship between tourism and wellbeing). Wellness is much more frequently associated with spas and luxury hotels which belong rather in the category of hedonism. Wellbeing, and especially subjective wellbeing, lend themselves more readily to both philosophical and sociological debates. However, I sometimes like to return to Nahrstedt’s (2008) argument that wellness is the path to achieving wellbeing and involves a number of choices that can be made to improve life, health and happiness.
Before Tej Vir Singh passed away, he asked me to contribute to a book on Tourism, Hope and Happiness. He told me that I was one of the few academics who had focused consistently on the positive aspects of tourism over the years. I was quite touched by this comment and invitation, but it fits my personality well, as I am lucky enough to be one of life’s optimists for whom the glass is always half full. Despite the challenges of life, I believe that it is important to practice mindfulness and gratitude to appreciate what we have rather than what we do not have. This does not mean that I am not engaged in debates about ethics, sustainability and the negative impacts of tourism, I just believe that if tourism is managed well, all forms of tourism can be mutually beneficial to both visitors and communities. For that reason, I have undertaken work on tourism and quality of life which examines the relationship from the perspective of both tourists and locals. I am grateful to both Joe Sirgy and Muzaffer Uysal for this opportunity.
I am interested in forms of tourism that are not only based on pleasure and hedonism (which also have their place and time) but in those activities that enable people to discover their true selves and to engage in self-development. We might define this as eudaimonia. The chapter that I promised to Tej Vir Singh has now been written for the book on Tourism, Hope, Happiness & the Good Life (edited by David Fennell and Richard Butler) and focuses once again on retreats using Aristotle’s theory of eudaimonia and its connections to existential philosophy. This includes Kierkegaard’s idea of ‘authentic living’, Sartre’s ‘ontological’ versus ‘practical’ freedom and Heidegger’s notion of life being a ‘project of becoming’. I think that Tej Vir Singh would have appreciated the chapter as it returns to the same themes – retreats and journeys of the self, from which his and my idea of Wellness Tourism was born.
The context of retreats has interested me for so many years because they have proliferated very rapidly since I started studying them in 2003 and they are one of the few spaces in tourism that truly offer eudaimonic experiences. This includes learning how to enhance subjective wellbeing, balancing the body, mind and spirit, living more authentically, personal development, fulfilling potential and living one’s best life. A range of activities tend to be carefully selected by the retreat organisers focusing on what the participant needs most. Yoga and meditation are very common, as well as physical exercise, healthy food, creative activities and advice on stress management, work-life balance and living with more joy and passion. Transformation is also a key word in the retreat discourse and I contributed to the fascinating body of work by Yvette Reisinger (Reisinger, 2013) on ‘transformational tourism’ (Smith, 2013) which is closely connected to wellness and especially retreats. It should be noted that transformation is also about facing life’s challenges and hardships as well as taking collective actions towards positive social change.
Now I am 50 years old, married with two children and in a good place in my academic career. My husband László Puczkó is also a wellness enthusiast, health tourism and spa consultant and we have written joint books on these subjects (Smith & Puczkó, 2008, 2013). Some of our work is about spa management, experience creation (Smith, 2021a) and customer service too (Smith, Jancsik & Puczkó, 2021). With our joint organization Health Tourism Worldwide, we try to undertake studies that collect global data and inform industry practice too. As we are living in Hungary, balneology or the medical use of thermal waters is extremely important, so I have also incorporated thermal bath or spa management into my research (e.g. Smith & Puczkó, 2017; Smith & Puczkó, 2018; Wallace & Smith, 2020; Smith & Wallace, 2020). A few years ago, I was also a principal researcher in a project on Balkan Wellbeing which included 11 countries. We focused on the main factors that constitute health and happiness in those countries, as well as examining health tourism development. I also undertook research which supported the development of a Baltic Health Tourism cluster for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as a project on wellness tourism development in Valais in Switzerland. I also recently led an 18-month V4 country project in Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia about challenges and opportunities for balneology spas in the region.
My soul-searching is now of a different nature than it was in my early 30s. I wrote a paper a couple of years ago about ‘Wellness in the U-bend of life’ (Smith, 2018) which explored why mid-life was the low point in life’s happiness, especially for women. This was a way of coming to terms with my own middle age as well as exploring why the average age for wellness tourism (especially in spas and retreats) seemed to be around 45 and predominantly female. However, it now concerns me to read reports that indicate that the highest rates of depression are among young people aged 18-29 (especially women). This will be a future avenue of research for me and the connections to the COVID pandemic, economic and environmental sustainability, extreme politics and the impacts of social media are likely to be important factors in this research.
Some of my recent research interests also include the relationship between tourism, wellness and spirituality (Smith, 2021b; Smith, Kiss & Chan, 2022). Spirituality tends to be one of the most under-researched areas of wellness because it is so elusive. Spiritual tourism in the context of wellness is often concerned with a personal or individual quests for meaning and the development of the self. It also involves connections to nature and landscape. I was a Working Group Chair in a four year EU COST project that researched the relationship between tourism, wellbeing and ecosystem services, which included focusing on the wellbeing benefits of contact with nature and landscape. My own publications from this project were mainly about Cultural Ecosystem Services because these combine my interests in culture and spirituality as well as nature and wellbeing (Smith & Csurgó, 2018; Ram & Smith, 2019; Csurgó & Smith, 2021).
Overall, what has been my contribution to the field of Wellness Tourism? In addition to 4 books, 20 book chapters, 10 journal articles, 2 special issues of journals (Smith & Kelly, 2006a; Smith, Deery & Puczkó, 2010), 1 encyclopedia entry (Smith, 2022), several projects and consultancy work including for ETC/UNWTO (ETC/UNWTO, 2018), I have been running specialist courses in Health Tourism, Wellness and Spas for 15+ years in Budapest as well as teaching courses in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. I have also been involved in the curriculum design and teaching of a Master’s programme in Wellness and Spa Service Design and Management at University of Tartu, Pärnu College in Estonia for the past 10 years. Recently, I have noticed how pertinent the subject of wellness has become for students, especially in the wake of the COVID pandemic. It is so important for young people today to discuss their place in this uncertain world; to debate how to stay happy and healthy despite political turmoil, environmental decline and economic recession; to make sense of their relationship to themselves and the influence that social media plays within that; their FOMO or Fear of Missing Out while recognizing the need for digital detoxification; and their justifiable concerns about the future of the planet and sustainability. Although wellness could be thought of as a very personal and individual journal, it also involves social responsibility towards public health and the health of the planet. Life is often described as a journey but one which has an unknown destination, unlike tourism. For this reason, the path that we tread and the choices that we make along the way are essential to gaining the most from this journey. I hope to teach future generations to look after not only themselves, but each other too, as well as caring for the precious and fragile environment around us. My own journey is not yet over and I hope to keep contributing to this fascinating and socially important field for as long as I can.
Written by Melanie Kay Smith, Budapest Metropolitan University, Hungary
Read Melanie’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers
Csurgó, B. & Smith, M. K. (2021). The value of cultural ecosystem services in a rural landscape context, Journal of Rural Studies, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2021.05.030
ETC/UNWTO (2018). Exploring Health Tourism. Madrid: UNWTO.
Filep, S. & Deery, M. (2010). Towards a picture of tourists’ happiness. Tourism Analysis, 15(4), 399-410. https://doi.org/10.3727/108354210X12864727453061
Nahrstedt, W. (2004). Wellness im Kurort: Neue Qualität für den Gesundheitstourismus in Europa. Spektrum Freizeit, 26(2), 37-52
Nawijn, J. (2011). Determinants of daily happiness on vacation. Journal of Travel Research, 50(5), 559-566. https://doi.org/10.1177/0047287510379164
Philip, P., Filep, S. & Ross, G. (2011). Tourists, Tourism and the Good Life. London: Routledge.
Ram, Y. & Smith, M. K. (2019). An assessment of visited landscapes using a Cultural Ecosystem Services framework. Tourism Geographies. https://doi.org/10.1080/14616688.2018.1522545
Reisinger, Y. (2013). Transformational Tourism: Tourist Perspectives. Wallingford: CABI.
Smith, M.K. (2003). Holistic Holidays: Tourism and the Reconciliation of Body, Mind, Spirit. Journal of Tourism Recreation Research, 28(1), 103-108. https://doi.org/10.1080/02508281.2003.11081392
Smith, M. K. & Kelly, C. (2006a). (eds.) Wellness Tourism. Tourism Recreation Research, Special Issue, 31(1), 1-4. https://doi.org/10.1080/02508281.2006.11081241
Smith, M. K. & Kelly, C. (2006b). Journeys of the Self: The Rise of Holistic Tourism. Tourism Recreation Research, 31(1), 15-24. https://doi.org/10.1080/02508281.2006.11081243
Smith, M. K., Deery, M. & Puczkó, L. (2010). (eds.) The Role of Health, Wellness and Tourism for Destination Development. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, Special Issue, 17(1), 94–95. https://doi.org/10.1375/jhtm.17.1.94
Smith, M. K. & Puczkó, L. (2008). Health and Wellness Tourism. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Smith, M. K. & Puczkó, L. (2013). Health, Tourism and Hospitality: Spas, Wellness and Medical Travel. London: Routledge.
Smith, M. K. (2013). Wellness tourism and its transformational practices. In Y. Reisinger (ed.) Transformational Tourism: Tourist Perspectives (pp. 55-67). Wallingford: CABI.
Smith, M. K. & Diekmann, A. (2017). Tourism and Wellbeing. Annals of Tourism Research, 66, 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annals.2017.05.006
Smith, M. K. & Puczkó, L. (2017). Balneology and health tourism. In M. K. Smith & L. Puczkó (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Health Tourism (pp. 271-281). London: Routledge.
Smith, M. K. (2018). Wellness in the ’U-bend’ of Life: why the core market is middle-aged and female. International Journal of Spa and Wellness, 1(1), 4-19. https://doi.org/10.1080/24721735.2018.1438480
Smith, M. K. & Puczkó, L. (2018). Thermal Spas, Well-being and Tourism in Budapest. In M. Uysal, J. M. Sirgy & S. Kruger (eds.) Managing Quality of Life in Tourism and Hospitality (pp.103-118). Wallingford: CAB International.
Smith, M. K. & Csurgó, B. (2018). Tourism, Wellbeing and Cultural Ecosystem Services. A Case Study of Őrség National Park, Hungary. In I. Azara, E. Michopoulou, F. Niccolini, B. D. Taff & A. Clarke (eds.) Tourism, Health, Wellbeing and Protected Areas (pp. 26-38). Wallingford: CABI.
Smith, M. K. & Wallace, M. (2020). An analysis of key issues in spa management: viewpoints from international industry professionals. International Journal of Spa and Wellness, 2(3), 119-134. https://doi.org/10.1080/24721735.2020.1819706
Smith, M. K. (2021a). Creating Wellness Tourism Experiences. In R. Sharpley (ed.) Routledge Handbook of the Tourist Experience, Chapter 26 (forthcoming). London: Routledge.
Smith, M. K. (2021b). Religion, spirituality and wellness tourism. In D. H. Olsen and D.J. Timothy, (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Religious and Spiritual Tourism, Chapter 5 (forthcoming). London: Routledge.
Smith, M. K. (2022). Wellness Tourism. In D. Buhalis (ed.) Encyclopedia of Tourism Management and Marketing. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Smith, M. K., Kiss, R. & Chan, I.Y.F. (2022). Millennials’ Perceptions of Spirituality, Wellness and Travel. In S. K. Walia and A. Jasrotia (eds.) Millennials, Spirituality and Tourism, Chapter 6, London: Routledge (forthcoming).
Smith M. K., Jancsik, A. & Puczkó, L. (2021). Customer satisfaction in post-socialist spas. International Journal of Spa and Wellness, 3, 1-22. https://doi.org/10.1080/24721735.2020.1866330
Wallace, M. G. & Smith, M. K. (2020). The Spa Manager’s Essential Guide. Oxford: Goodfellow.