Gone are the days of wellness travel focused solely on luxury spa experiences and five-star hotel stays. Today, wellness travel takes a much more holistic approach to meeting travelers’ mental and physical needs.

As the pandemic accelerated our collective understanding of physical and mental wellness, the same happened across the travel industry. Wellness-centric travel manifests in many of the same forms as our daily lives, including healthy eating and exercise, sleep and relaxation, arts and creativity, and nature-based experiences.

“During the pandemic, we realized that if we don’t have our health, we have nothing,” said Anne Dimon, president/CEO of the Wellness Tourism Association and founder/editor of TraveltoWellness.com. “What planners need to realize is that today, more people have adopted wellness practices into their lives and they want to take those practices with them when they travel.”

The Wellness Tourism Association defines Wellness Travel as, “Travel that allows the traveler to maintain, enhance or kick-start a healthy lifestyle, and support or increase one’s sense of wellbeing.”

Dimon says that can include providing healthy food options, planning nature-based activities, including hikes and outdoor yoga, offering space and/ or time for self-reflection and meditation, and ensuring access to a quiet place for a good night’s sleep.

The wellness tourism economy

The Global Wellness Institute forecasts the U.S.-based wellness tourism market will reach $919 billion by 2022 and nearly $7 trillion globally by 2025, according to its report titled The Global Wellness Economy: Looking Beyond COVID published in December 2021.

To capture travelers in this growing market, group tour planners must adapt, specifically by focusing on a more personal and human-centric approach to travel.

Sahara Rose De Vore, the founder of The Travel Coach Network, which helps travel entrepreneurs grow their business and networks, says this starts with group tour planners understanding and tapping into the why behind clients’ desires to travel.

Rose De Vore says that only when tour planners ask clients what they hope to get out of their travels (such as relaxation, new cultural perspectives, quiet time in nature or opportunities to self-reflect), will they be able to better coordinate and plan wellness
benefits and excursions that will meet travelers’ unique needs.

“Travel companies, travel planners, or anyone who manages group travel experiences must
incorporate wellness aspects into their marketing and messaging to connect with this growing demographic of travelers,” adds Rose De Vore.

Wellness-centered destinations worth visiting

Wellness-centered destinations around the country offer groups the chance to build on their mindfulness practice, meditate in natural spaces, and refuel and refresh their mind and body through food, sights, sounds and experiences.

Here, we’ve included a few cities that top the list for their ability to foster mental and physical well-being for groups of all sizes:

Hot Springs, Arkansas

With a nickname like “The Natural State,” it’s only fitting for groups to find calmness and serenity within Arkansas’ many natural marvels. Among one of the state’s most beautiful destinations is Hot Springs, a vibrant city full of nature-based wellness experiences in the
Ouachita Mountains.

From early Native Americans to modern-day travelers, many have enjoyed the promise of rejuvenation with the help of Hot Springs’ healing waters. Today, you can experience a bathing ritual at one of the historic bathhouses still in operation, including the Buckstaff Hot Springs Bathhouse or Quapaw Baths and Spa.

Bob and Sunny Evans Tree House, Garvan Woodland Gardens, Hot Springs, Ark.
Credit: Visit Hot Springs

In addition to the 1.8 million acres of rural nature to explore across the Ouachita Mountains, groups can take a guided or self-guided tour in a smaller slice of nature at Garvan Woodland Gardens, the botanical gardens of the University of Arkansas. The gardens are a treasure for those seeking a quiet place to meditate or practice mindfulness. The 45-acre property completely immerses visitors in a sea of perfectly manicured flora and fauna. Groups can walk the paths and bridges winding under a thick canopy of pines or take in a bird’s-eye view from above in the stunning Bob and Sunny Evans Tree House — an architectural marvel nestled within the forest.

Just north of the gardens at The Hixson Family Nature Preserve, hiking trails pass through native oak and cypress trees across the 45-acre property. Guided or self-guided hikes along the preserve’s nearly 2-mile Birdsong Trail offer time to reflect and listen to the sounds of nature on resting benches and at bird-feeding stations along the path.

Groups looking for a more traditional wellness experience can relax and rejuvenate at the Astral Spa at the Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort. The spa draws influence from the region’s ancient thermal springs and offers services incorporating healing water, salts and gemstones from the region.

Naples, Florida

Naples offers the best of wellness travel year-round. While it’s easy to understand the benefits of a long walk along the city’s 30 miles of white-sand coastline, groups who travel to Naples are in for a wellness experience that goes well beyond the beach.

The 13,450-acre Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and 170-acre Naples Botanical Garden offer natural diversity that spans from Naples’ backyard to foreign jungles. Along the Corkscrew’s 2¼-mile boardwalk, visitors can reflect on and revel at the sights within the largest old-growth cypress forest in North America, which are native to the region. And inside the Asian, Caribbean and Brazilian gardens at the Naples Botanical Garden, groups will feel a sense of calmness wash over them in the unique, tropical atmosphere featuring
plants from around the world.

Big Cypress Swamp Walk, Naples, Fla.
Credit: Naples Marco Island Everglades CVB

A fully-immersed nature experience like a swamp walk — or “slough slog” — through the Everglades wetlands is a true way to bond with Mother Nature. Touch and feel the nature around you during a walk through Big Cypress Swamp in the Big Cypress National Preserve. As you wade ankle-to-knee-deep through the cool and mucky water and beneath
ancient cypress trees, the changing temperatures, smells and sounds serve as nature therapy to adventurers. Groups with accessibility needs, or those wanting to stay dry, can also view the swamplands from above at nature areas like Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park along the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk.

Among the most unique opportunities for wellness in Naples is the chance to meditate and connect with wolves at the Shy Wolf Sanctuary — a refuge for animals rescued from animal services, wildlife rehabilitators or zoos. The sanctuary offers a variety of educational and therapeutic programs to heal the heart and mind, specifically, through the sanctuary’s Healing Hearts program.

“Because our animals come to us from abused, abandoned and neglected situations, a magical healing connection is made with humans who have had similar experiences in their lives. Our animals teach us about kindness, forgiveness, gratitude, courage, and unconditional love,” the website describes.

Rockford, Illinois

The small-town charm and abundance of outdoor recreation make Rockford an ideal destination for wellness travel. An hour and a half outside of downtown Chicago, Rockford boasts more than 10,000 acres of protected recreational land, 42 individual forests preserves that surround the city and ample green space, including the beautiful Nicholas Conservatory and Gardens.

Wellness Travel
Mountain biking, Rock Cut State Park, Rockford, Ill.
Credit: Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

Groups can also “forest bathe” in the Anderson Japanese Gardens, a pristine garden sanctuary designed by master craftsman and designer Hoichi Kurisu. The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku — or Forest Bathing — focuses on mindfulness and meditative exercises that leverage the restorative benefits and simplicity of nature. Or for adventure-focused groups, the Atwood Park Silent Sports Trails provide the perfect opportunity for bikers, hikers and anyone hoping to immerse themselves in the peace and quiet of nature.

For wellness centered on food and the arts, Rockford does not disappoint. Rockford offers an urban downtown destination with cultural restaurants and institutions including the recently restored Coronado Performing Arts Center and the Rockford Indoor City Market.
The Rockford City Market features locally grown food and locally crafted artwork by growers, bakers, artists and artisans from the region, while the Coronado Performing Arts Center hosts concerts, Broadway, and comedic and orchestral performances year-round.

Article by Erica Zazo. Main image credit: Adobe Stock