Wellness travel: It’s more than just staying fit on the road

This July 24, 2017 photo provided by Wanderlust, participants work out on paddle boards during Wanderlust Squaw Valley 2017, in North Lake Tahoe, Calif. Wellness tourism is booming, with travelers not just staying fit while on the road, but planning entire trips with a goal of improving their health and well-being. (Amanda Senior/Wanderlust via AP)
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It’s one thing when hotels open fitness centers, but quite another when fitness centers open hotels.

Luxe gym Equinox is opening a hotel in New York’s new Hudson Yards neighborhood next year in a move that embodies the evolution of wellness travel.

Most hotels have beefed up fitness options — you can book rooms with stationary bikes and rent workout clothes — but wellness travel has become much more than just keeping fit while on the road. Increasingly it’s become the point of the journey. And it’s bringing in big dollars.

Whether it’s foraging for your own medicinal herbs in Peru, cycling across the California coastline or spending several thousand dollars to workout alongside celeb trainer Tracy Anderson in Aspen, Colorado, wellness tourists made 691 million trips in 2015, according to the Global Wellness Institute.

In the past, wellness vacations straddled between starvation-style bootcamps or relaxing spa weekends to detox from an unhealthy lifestyle. But as self-care has evolved into a daily goal, it’s found an obvious match in travel. International and domestic wellness tourism brought in $563 billion in 2015, up from $489 billion in 2013, according to the Global Wellness Institute. Wellness travel is expected to grow to $808 billion by 2020.

The travel trend has mirrored the shift in retail. Gone are the days when shoppers head to a brick-and-mortar store to buy shoes that they could buy online. Instead, they’re being lured to stores by experiences.

Similarly, vacationers are less excited about lying on the beach with umbrella drinks. They too want a more immersive experience, like a yoga meditation retreat or surf camp, to connect with others and revitalize themselves, experts say.

“(Fitness has) gone from being an activity to now it’s a destination. It’s a purpose,” said Marshal Cohen, an analyst for the trend group NPD. “That’s a huge shift in spending. We’re not building wardrobes anymore. We’re building memories and the photos we’re clicking on our phones and posting on social media are the fruits of our labor.”

The Curtain Bluff resort in Antigua launched a new wellness concierge where guests can meet with the team at no extra charge to design their own fitness program including everything from zumba to pilates. Amanpuri’s resort in Phuket, Thailand, created four wellness immersions, where guests can focus on fitness, weight loss, digestive cleanses or mental awareness during a three- to 14-night vacation. Offerings include reiki, an alternative stress-reduction therapy, and life-coaching.

The trend is even spilling over to cruises, once stereotyped as weight-gaining vacations with bottomless buffets. Now, wellness can be the point of the cruise. Holland America Line, in partnership with O, The Oprah Magazine, has programs for meditation and healthy living.

Cruise passengers can also combine wellness with sightseeing in ports of call. Take a shore excursion on a Regents Seven Seas cruise, for example, and you might end up doing yoga on a coconut plantation in Ko Samui, Thailand, or outdoor tai chi in Marseille, France, with a view of the sea on one side and a palace on the other.

“We are seeing (cruise) lines of every ilk and size embrace healthy eating, fitness, all sorts of positive, new kinds of approaches to yoga and that kind of thing,” said CruiseCritic editor at large Carolyn Spencer Brown.

Savvy athleisure retailers are also seizing on it. Lululemon and Free People, a bohemian line popular with yogis, have both branched into wellness tourism. Free People’s retreats started a few years ago where participants can exercise and try journaling or tarot card workshop in spots like Glacier National Park.

Zen travelers are shelling out thousands to follow celebrity trainers to exotic destinations. Tracy Anderson, who is Gwyneth Paltrow’s business partner and the trainer who shapes Jennifer Lopez’s famous booty, hosts a handful of intimate weekends each year with less than 40 guests. Participants sweat alongside the fitness guru and get to know her during fireside-style chats in cities including Miami and Aspen. The weekends, priced at several thousand dollars, always sell out.

Shakira’s trainer Anna Kaiser leads a few trips a year, including recent stints in Ojai and Austin. And retreats for the hot workout du jour The Class by Taryn Toomey have all sold out, often within one hour. Toomey’s guests pay between $2,000 and $6,000 for her cathartic workouts with options for beachside massages and picturesque hikes in spots like Mustique and Mexico.

Roughly 100,000 wellness lovers attended uber-popular Wanderlust festivals across North America last year, partaking in everything from yoga and meditation to stand-up paddleboarding and spinning in spots like Oahu, Hawaii, and Squaw Valley, California.

Meghan Aftosmis loved Wanderlust’s Vermont event so much last year that she’s heading back in a few weeks.

The 39-year-old public relations exec from Delaware says she was eager to take yoga classes with one of the celebrity teachers. She also took a poetry session with a teacher she’d been following online.

“It comes down to having an experience and especially in the summer I look for new adventures,” she said.q