The dangers of the burgeoning wellness retreat industry

Wellness tourism’s shift towards medical-esque extremes could be indicative of a deeper obsession with performance

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High-flyers are increasingly opting for excursions that not only afford them time to enjoy a novel, but also allow them to return to their lives physically and mentally transformed

Once upon a time, jetting off on a so-called ‘wellness retreat’ implied completing a few yoga sessions, perhaps hiking if the weather allowed it, and receiving an extra side of vegetables at dinner time. It meant forgoing a glass of wine on a night or two of the holiday, and basking in a righteous, hangover-free glow as a result.

But times have changed. High-flyers are increasingly opting for excursions that not only afford them time to enjoy a novel or two, but allow them to return to their day-to-day lives physically and mentally transformed. To cater for this growing demand, a new class of wellness-focused resorts has emerged, offering programmes that extend well beyond a cursory massage and into pseudo-medical territory. Treatments such as oxidative stress analysis, once the preserve of Olympic athletes, are now accessible to anyone with a substantial bank balance.

However, this conflation of preventative, wellness-focused treatments and curative medical practices can prove problematic, particularly if they aren’t carried out by adequately trained professionals. There’s also a risk that people may be blinded by the performance-based promises that some of these retreats make, and may undergo serious pseudo-medical treatments without being fully cognisant of the physical risks.

Quest for health
Wellness tourism, the economic category under which many of these retreats fall, has exploded in size in a relatively short space of time. The term entered the mainstream lexicon less than 10 years ago, but in 2017, the global wellness tourism market was worth $639bn (€569.6bn), and is expected to reach $919bn (€819.2bn) by 2022, according to the Global Wellness Institute.

Regardless of whether the treatments are indeed curative or preventative, the necessary presence of a medical doctor indicates their gravity

Given their infancy, there’s no specific term within the market for these pseudo-medical wellness retreats, nor an estimation of their value – some existed prior to the wellness boom and shifted their business models when the term rose in the zeitgeist. “Wellness, health, detox – these words have become trendy in recent years, and people are becoming more interested in these topics,” a spokesperson at the Chenot Palace Health Wellness Hotel in Azerbaijan told European CEO. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in our guests [as a result.]”

Chenot Palace has historically welcomed guests from Russia and Kazakhstan, but following a significant influencer marketing push, it is now making waves in the European market. “We are trying to see what it could bring us,” Chenot’s spokesperson said. “That’s why we invited Millie [Mackintosh, a London influencer who recently visited,] and her team. We gained so many followers.” The spokesperson described Chenot as “more like a medical centre, because guests cannot stay at the hotel if they don’t book onto one of the programmes”.

Each of the six options includes the sort of treatments one would expect to find at a wellness retreat, such as a detoxifying menu and lymphatic drainage massages. Others, such as a biochemical analysis of blood samples, or an ozone systemic treatment, would be more at home in a medical clinic. “We have medical doctors, but according to our concept, we don’t treat,” Chenot’s spokesperson said. Rather, they added, the hotel’s programmes are based on the Chenot method – an ostensibly holistic approach that draws on influences from traditional Chinese practices and combines those with “advanced medical technologies”. This intermingling of medical and homeopathic terminology makes it difficult to discern the true nature of the retreat.

Regardless of whether the treatments are indeed curative or preventative, the necessary presence of a medical doctor indicates their gravity. After all, a botched blood sample carries far more severe consequences than a manicure gone wrong. Some of the treatments also carry serious health risks: ozone therapy, for instance, has been prohibited by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 2016, which said: “Ozone is a toxic gas with no known useful medical application in specific, adjunctive, or preventive therapy.” At least 10 deaths have been linked to ozone therapy.

As for Chenot’s other treatments, they may not carry such weighty health risks, but certainly don’t constitute part of a normal health and wellbeing regime either. The hotel’s spokesperson told European CEO that many guests undertake its programmes for “rejuvenation, relaxation, revitalisation, and to get new energy”. However, comments about the number of followers Chenot gained after engaging with an Instagram influencer suggest there is an element of shock factor for social media to it all, too.

Certain extreme treatments carry serious health risks, particularly if not carried out by trained medical professionals

Competitive edge
The push by wellness retreats towards the extremes of the industry in their treatment offering is symptomatic of two fundamental truths. First, in a crowded market, it is a natural response for businesses to develop increasingly unique products to distinguish themselves from competitors. In industries such as technology and manufacturing, or even more traditional tourism sectors, this is simply a shrewd business decision. In the wellness sector, however, it becomes problematic, as it necessitates pushing further towards the limits of what the human body is designed to handle. This can do far more harm than good.

Certain extreme treatments carry serious health risks, particularly if not carried out by trained medical professionals. Large corporate organisations are likely to be more cautious in this regard, for the sake of both their customers and their reputation. However, there will inevitably be a crop of smaller copycat companies that materialise, offering the same treatment for a fraction of the cost but with few of the safety procedures in place.

Supervisory oversight is often slow to catch up with booming industries, and that’s certainly the case with the wellness sector. For instance, whole-body cryotherapy – a popular treatment that involves immersing oneself in a chamber of air frozen to as low as -160 degrees Celsius – is entirely unregulated by the FDA at present. As long as this remains the case, there is a very real risk to anyone seeking these sorts of treatments on the cheap.

Second, the move towards extreme treatments in search of wellness is indicative of a wider move towards perfection and competitiveness in our society. A healthy body that is performing at its absolute optimal level has become the ultimate status symbol. Glowing skin, a six-pack and even a balanced mind are far more covetable today than a luxury car or designer handbag, because it signals not only an abundance of wealth, but of self-discipline, too.

Maintaining a model-esque physique requires dedication to a diet and a gym routine, as well as self-control when temptation calls. All of these qualities are applicable, too, to business excellence: stringent control of cash flows and dedication to the company’s mission are the pathway to greater returns. In this sense, the new class of retreats has become simply another way for executives to invest in their own success and gain a competitive edge over rivals. In the same way that a CEO pushes their team for better results, by undergoing these extreme treatments, they are pushing their bodies for ever-greater returns on their wellness investment.