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Wellness Tourism in India Perfect Blend of Tradition and Modernity

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In recent years, wellness travel to India has exploded. The Wellness Tourism segment is estimated to grow nearly 50 per cent faster than global tourism by 2017, and a significant contribution to this will come from Asia, states a recent study by SRI International. Salon India gives you a perspective

The Beatles discovered yoga as the way to physical nirvana during their rendezvous with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh in 1969 and today, too, India is attracting tourists seeking serenity and optimum health and is emerging as one of the fastest-growing modern spa and wellness markets in the world and a thought-leader in the travel category of wellness tourism, which has explosive potential for the spa and wellness industry.

As the interest of the consumer is growing in theme-based travel, wellness is the name of the game for it has always been a silent constituent in the art of holidaying. It is one of the reasons vacation options have not only increased, but also attained a new meaning. Opines Dr Varun Katyal, Consultant Dermatologist and Wellness Expert, The Skin Centre, “India has the highest potential in medical tourism in the world. Several factors such as low costs, scale and range of treatments differentiate it from other medical tourism destinations. India produces the largest number of doctors, nurses and medical technicians in the world. In addition, India has been traditionally linked with western health care because of the British influence on India’s medical education and the ability to speak English. This is extremely important for developing global health care.”

Not just another vacation
Mia Farrow, Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey are a few of the many Westerners who have flocked to meditation retreats and spiritual sites. Now, the south east Asian country is the fastest-growing wellness travel destination, with a projected 22 per cent annual growth rate. In comparison, the United States, the leader in wellness travel, has an average annual growth rate of only 5.8 per cent. Wellness travel is now a $439 billion industry worldwide within the $3.2 trillion global tourism industry, representing 14 per cent of all tourism spending. It’s estimated to have a trillion dollars worth of economic impact.

Susie Ellis, Chairman and CEO of the Global Spa & Wellness Summit, said in a statement, “As more people embrace an overall healthier lifestyle at home, we are now seeing those behaviours translate and integrate into their travel and vacation habits. For others, vacation provides an escape from the non-stop activities of their daily lives. As these two trends converge, we are seeing many people commit their vacation time and dollars to wellness travel, as evidenced by their increased spending and specific global destination choices.”

India story
As the birthplace of yoga, meditation and Ayurveda, India is one of the world’s true wellness Meccas and an ideal place to explore its ancient roots. “India’s wellness offerings are very understandable – they have yoga, meditation and Ayurveda. Right now, those are things that are really resonating with people. The kind of things that people want and need are the things that India is offering,” says Dr Seema Anand, Holistic Healer and Founder, Look Beyond. Spa experiences, healthy eating, opportunities for personal growth, yoga and meditation, fitness, stress reduction and holistic health are among the experiences sought by wellness travellers, according to the 2013 Global Wellness Tourism Economy Report. The recent mindfulness boom may be playing a part in attracting more visitors to India.

“India is a global trendsetter in the Wellness Tourism segment,” says Susie Ellis, adding, “Wellness Tourism in general, and for India specifically, is being galvanised by a rising, global consumer travel trend—more people seeking hyper-local, authentic, indigenous experiences and they are looking to explore new cultures. India is perceived worldwide, as one of the true spiritual homes of the modern wellness movement and has a powerful and unique ‘wellness halo’ with its ancient, rich history of Ayurveda, yoga and meditation. The SRI Study projects India to be number one globally for growth in Wellness Tourism over the next five years, clocking over 20 per cent gains annually through 2017.”

With many countries approaching medical tourism, Thailand, Malaysia and India are seen to be more prominent. India’s key advantages being, according to Cosmetologist Dr Deepti Dhillon, Founder and Director of Appleskin Clinics in Delhi, “Advanced treatments at low costs, strong reputation in the health care industry like surgeries, cosmetic dermatology  and more, and the diversity of tourist destinations are some of the the advantages that India has.”

Wellness = Leisure + Healing
Over 20 million Americans and more than a quarter of a billion people worldwide now practise yoga. That is more than the populations of the UK, France, Germany and Italy put together. More people will now travel for the whole Ayurvedic ‘package’—pulse and dosha by a qualified practitioner; Panchakarma, the multi-week detox and dietary recommendations and coaching. The increasing trend of lifestyle diseases has led to the popularity of medical tourism, resultantly, spa destinations or resorts have registered a growth worldwide, more so in India. India is placed among the top three medical tourism destinations in Asia, mainly due to the low cost of treatment, quality health care infrastructure and availability of highly-skilled doctors, says a study.

Many Indian spas and even hospitals are working towards striking a balance between authentic indigenous treatments that excite the international traveller and the more modern, luxe, ‘international’ styles of spas and products that appeal to the domestic tourist. Synergies can exist between medical tourism and wellness tourism, in that these two industries can cooperate, collaborate and interact. “When someone is travelling for a medical procedure, partaking in wellness experiences before and after the procedure can be beneficial. Wellness can bookend medical procedures. Also, medical professionals could avail themselves of the medically-proven services offered in the wellness arena that will help their patients make lifestyle changes, such as fitness coaching, or post-procedural maintenance”, says Dr Anand.
Fortis, a leading hospital is launching special treatments to cater to the foreigners. “Nowadays, foreigners are asking for cosmetic procedures like rhinoplasty, cheek augmentation, liposuction and hair transplant which are now being added with the other health concerns. It is also because most of the leading hospitals aim at providing a one-stop solution to the foreigners,” says Dr Dhillon.

Stats prove it
A 2011 KPMG report clearly establishes India’s cost advantage vis-à-vis other countries. While a coronary artery bypass surgery costs $70,000 to $133,000 in the US, it costs just $7,000 in India, $31,750 in South Korea and $22,000 in Thailand. Similarly, the cost of knee replacement in the US is $30,000 to $53,000, while it comes to just $9,200 in India, $11,800 in South Korea and $11,500 in Thailand. For a spine treatment, the cost in India is around $8,000 as compared to $65,000 in America. Complicated treatments for ailments, such as, liver diseases, sight corrections, orthopaedics, kidney diseases, pediatric diseases, cancer and heart diseases, are performed at a fraction of the cost without sacrificing on quality. Popular cosmetic surgeries like liposuction, breast reshaping, facelifts and fillers too can be undergone at a nominal cost. “India has a competitive advantage in respect to low cost treatments over the rest of the world when it comes to medical tourism. For example, a facelift costs around $15,000 in US and costs around $4,000 in India; liposuction costs around $9,000 in US and costs around $2,000 to $3,000 in India, i.e. the treatments here are three times less expensive in comparison to the US and UK,” clarifies Dr Dhillon.

Reasons for India’s rise
In the past few years, Asia has taken the lead as one of the most preferred destinations for medical value travel. India has tens of thousands of skilled physicians and nurse practitioners. Most of the doctors are at par with their US counterparts. Indian hospitals are also well equipped to deal with complicated surgeries, post-surgical care and treatments. Over the last 20 years or so, the economic boom in India has led to the building of medical facilities and infrastructure that rival the best that the western medical care has to offer. India’s medical tourism sector is expected to experience an annual growth rate of 30 per cent, making it a $2billion industry by 2015. Vastly skilled, experienced and trained doctors, physicians and surgeons, of international fame and repute, perform the most complicated surgeries and procedures here. Further, the doctors are supported by a strong, comprehensive and well trained paramedical force comprising of nurses, technicians, attendants, clinical coordinators and nutritionists. The amenities offered by the hospitals are all state-of-the-art, and the technological expertise utilised by the doctors is world-class and latest. The hospitals use first-rate and safe implants and consumables. There is virtually zero wait time involved. Together, these factors are putting India in the centre of the world where one can come and seek health, either through medicine or alternative and traditional healing.

“Many Indian hospitals that attract foreign patients have world-class facilities and are accredited by internationally-recognised International. Patients who travel abroad for medical treatment do so for a variety of reasons. The elite from developing countries seek treatments not available in their own countries. Therefore, a number of hospitals in India are seeing an influx of patients from Bangladesh and the Gulf. Patients from the US seek treatments that cost five to 10 times in their own country. And, as public-funded health insurance is unable to cope with the rising demands of an increasingly ageing population, patients from countries, such as, United Kingdom and Canada, travel to India to beat the huge waiting period for many routine procedures,” explains Dr Katyal.

Cost is a huge factor. Primary growth levers in this regard include low priced treatment options, availability of variety of treatments, improved infrastructure in terms of health care facilities and attractive locations for spending time after treatment. Affordable and inexpensive costs of medical care services, approximately 30 to 70 per cent lower than the costs in the US are a huge decision shifter. Dr Chytra V Anand, CEO & Consultant Cosmetic Dermatologist, Kosmoderma Clinics, Bangalore, says, “All hospitals today are catering to the foreign clients as the package for them is different from one meant for a local. In India, medical care is still affordable and subsidised to a large extent. But abroad, it may cost a person their life savings in a moment. In fact, in the UK, a lot of people die just waiting for an appointment with the NHS!”

Susie Ellis identifies two distinct forces that are giving an impetus to the Indian medical and wellness tourism industry, “India is perceived as one of the true ‘spiritual homes’ of the modern wellness movement. For example, with 250 million people now actively practicing yoga worldwide, there is a ramped up desire to make a pilgrimage to this wellness homeland. Big travel trends like adventure travel and spiritual travel, which are all really subsets of wellness tourism, are also putting India on more people’s travel maps,” she says.

There are numerous examples of Indian-based hotels and resorts driving the growth of spa and wellness travel, such as Taj Hotels, Resort and Palaces, Oberoi Hotels and The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, all well-established, growing, high-end hotel players with a strong spa component that incorporates India’s unique cultural and wellness heritage. Destination spa properties like Ananda in the Himalayas and Soukya also bring a great deal of global attention to the country and India’s spa industry, winning many awards and attracting high-profile international guests. Spas, located in numerous high-end Indian hotels, are growing fast and should continue to thrive. All of these brands have a powerful opportunity to not only expand into more properties, but also to extend their strong brands into products and other wellness-related businesses.

Challenges being faced
On a micro level, various roadblocks seem to threaten the pace of the rise of medical tourism in India. Dr Katyal sums them up and says, “Some bodies face challenges like lack of infrastructural facilities like lack of connectivity, lack of coordinating system, poor power supply and poor water supply. Some Indian hospitals are also facing the lack of trust from the foreign patients. The hospitals have observed poor hygiene awareness in medical attendants, unhygienic food handling and a lack of proper hospitality services, heterogeneous pricing of services and no industry standards. Lack of coordination among various players in the industry-airline operators, hotels and hospitals is also a dampener.”

On a macro level, industry experts also wish the government would play a larger role. “The private sector needs more support from the government in terms of policies. The government needs to subsidise taxes to encourage more medical tourism so that there is more forex revenue. Adding service tax to this sector is a poor idea. The government should project India in shows as a medical destination and support the small medium players in the industry,” feels Dr Anand.

“The major challenges are the absence of coordinated effort to promote medical tourism, lack of government initiative, lack of quality control in terms of cleanliness and accreditation mechanism, no provision for follow up care, absence of uniform pricing, policies and standards across hospitals,” says Dr Dhillon.

Dr Katyal adds another interesting perspective and says, “On the part of insurance and allied services, the medical tourism industry in India is also facing key bottlenecks. They are inadequate insurance cover, an underdeveloped insurance market in India, the number of insurance frauds and overseas companies refusing reimbursement.”

Future perspective
The Indian health care industry is growing at a very high pace and is expected to touch $238.76 billion by 2020. Experienced and talented professionals are working together to serve the global medical tourists. Growth in India’s medical tourism market has been and will continue to be a boon for several associated industries, including the hospital industry, the medical equipment industry and the pharmaceutical industry.

India is one of the fast growing nations in the world. Perceived as a service hub across the globe, it has attracted a large number of global companies to set up their base. This has already resulted in increased flow of business travel. The medical tourism industry should take this opportunity to attract medical tourists and popularise the wellness system in the country such that more and more FTAs could use them. India not only offers the medical treatment, but also other rejuvenative services such as yoga, meditation, herbal therapies and other skin treatments which could uplift the mood and enhance health of medical tourists. As a result, India is receiving a huge number of international tourists who are coming to gain the rejuvenative benefits.

The mushrooming of spas in India is not really an instance of the percolation of globalisation or about keeping pace with international trends simply because India has been a pioneer and is emerging as the world leader by offering countless wellness options. The contribution of spas in bringing India on the global tourism map is immense. India is the pioneer, but it lacks the marketing approach, packaging and promotion. And now that India has got its act together, it is the rest of the world that has to keep pace with India’s flourishing spa business.

Dr Katyal sees a win-win situation if the roadblocks are ironed out and says, “In India, the annual growth rate of medical tourism is approximately 30 per cent, which means there is a boost in the revenue generated by the medical industry. This increment seems to continue with more advanced technologies being introduced and more hospital projects coming up to meet specific needs of the foreigners. Another important factor seems to be the employment rate, which seems to be rising with the help of increased medical tourism.”

India’s medical tourism sector is expected to experience an annual growth rate of 30 per cent, making it a Rs9,500 cr industry by 2015. India is a place which offers services of well trained health practitioners, fluent English speaking medical staff, a good amount of herbal, natural, allopathic and alternative system of medicines. India is in an advantageous position to tap the global opportunities in the medical tourism sector.

Furthermore, the expectations of international wellness travellers to India have never been so well-met. There are now so many Indian properties and offerings—from the five-star to the more affordable that is working as a growth booster. When it comes to attracting wellness tourists to India, handled right, the sky is the limit.