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The Wellness Jaunt

Earlier the niche of foreigners, wellness tourism is gathering pace among Indians who are turning to ayurveda, yoga and naturopathy for holistic health

Mountain Bliss: Ananda in the Himalayas was popular with foreign tourists pre-Covid-19. Now, domestic travellers abound Mountain Bliss: Ananda in the Himalayas was popular with foreign tourists pre-Covid-19. Now, domestic travellers abound

In early 2021, 47-year-old Namrata Singh contracted Covid-19. She had a sore throat, body ache and fever, but her oxygen levels held up and she recovered without the need for hospitalisation. However, even after six weeks, she was struggling with acute leg pain, low immunity and the emotional impact of the disease. It was then that Singh decided to enrol in a post-Covid-19 recovery programme at Niraamaya Retreats Suryavilas in Solan, Himachal Pradesh. She underwent various therapies such as colon hydrotherapy, IV therapy, infrared sessions along with daily yoga sessions, ayurvedic massages and a controlled diet  —  all in the luxurious environs of the resort. When she returned home two weeks later, her immunity was stronger and her leg pain was negligible. “I was also happier,” says the mother of two.

Thirty-eight-year-old Nikhil Tondon contracted and recovered from Covid-19 in April. But a lingering dry cough and disturbed sleep patterns left the Delhi-based banker severely fatigued. “I had a tingling sensation and heaviness in my head, probably due to sleep deprivation as I could hardly sleep more than four hours,” he says. Tired of being cooped up at home and longing for a break, he signed up for a week-long holistic health retreat at Atmantan, a wellness resort near Pune. “Instead of indulging, I decided to focus on my well-being.”

At Atmantan, Tondon’s diet was tailored to include plenty of antioxidants, fruits and vegetables. He also underwent various yoga kriyas, acupuncture, Ayurveda and naturopathy sessions, and was given herbal supplements for his insomnia. A week later, the tingling sensation was gone, the dry cough had reduced significantly, and he was sleeping for seven hours. “I just felt so much better,” he says.

While Singh and Tondon visited the wellness retreats to help shake off the after-effects of Covid-19, several others untouched by the virus are also making a beeline for such resorts. The primary focus is to shore up one’s immunity and overall health, given the renewed focus on holistic well-being, nutrition and rejuvenation in the current stressful environment. Of course, the opportunity for a short break or a holiday adds to the allure.

Wellness tourism was slated to grow at an average annual rate of 7.5 per cent by 2022, according to a report by the Global Wellness Institute in 2018. This is higher than the 6.4 per cent annual growth rate projected for overall global tourism. That gap, in all likelihood, has increased in the past year-and-a-half as the pandemic has put paid to almost all leisure travel.

Surge in Indian Tourists

Nestled in the Himalayas, Ananda is rated as one of the world’s best luxury wellness destinations and has been very popular with foreign tourists, who constituted 75 per cent of its guest list before the pandemic. Travel restrictions meant its international clientele disappeared. But the domestic wellness seeker has helped Ananda endure and even stay in the black. “We have seen a significant rise in domestic wellness travellers,” says Mahesh Natarajan, COO, Ananda in the Himalayas. He estimates that domestic business between August 2020 and March 2021 was 30 per cent higher than between August 2019 and March 2020. And that was only the start.

“The resurgence in domestic tourists post the second lockdown has been even stronger than it was after the first lockdown. If I compare the domestic business of June-July 2021 with June-July 2019, we have posted an almost 100 per cent increase,” says Natarajan. He claims that the surge in domestic tourists has helped Ananda recover almost 60 per cent of its preCovid-19 revenue.

It’s the same story at Niraamaya Wellness Retreats, which has four properties in Kerala and one in Kohima, besides the one in Solan. While the Kohima property focusses on experiences, the others are wellness retreats that offer a combination of Ayurveda and functional medicine. Nearly 70 per cent of their guests were international tourists, mainly from the US, UK, Middle East and Europe.

“We only started focussing on the domestic tourist a year before the pandemic,” says Allen Machado, CEO, Niraamaya Wellness Retreats. “The surge in domestic bookings brought us out of the red zone in our cash flows. The period between October and April, before the second lockdown, saw unprecedented travel. People were really focussed on rejuvenating their health rather than just splurging on excesses. We saw domestic travel increase by 80 per cent in the October to April period, compared to the same time last year.”

Atmantan, on the other hand, has always focussed on the domestic traveller, with only 20 per cent of its guests being overseas residents. “Over the past decade, people have become more mindful about where they spend their holidays. Covid-19 has kind of accelerated that. We now see people not only from the top 10 metros but also from smaller cities who are now more determined to do something about their health,” says Nikhil Kapur, founder and director, Atmantan Wellness Centre. Their most popular programmes are obesity management, diabetes control and deep detox. “In the past six-nine months, people have come to treat auto-immune conditions and to manage their stress. All the anxiety and stress that people went through in the past 15 months were unprecedented,” he says.

The average duration of stay at Atmantan has gone up from seven nights pre-Covid-19 to 10.5 nights now. Moreover, the contribution per guest — calculated as revenue minus operating costs — has increased by 30 per cent. Besides, Atmantan is currently operating only half its inventory of 100 rooms to maintain its safety bubble. And it is completely sold out, says Kapur.

Ananda in the Himalayas, too, is operating at only half its capacity to ensure the safety of guests and staff. But instead of offering discounts to lure in domestic tourists, Ananda raised its prices to meet fixed costs. “We were pleasantly surprised that guests have had no problem with the increased rates because of the service and safety that we provide,” says Natarajan.

These rates aren’t cheap. A sevennight package at Niraamaya starts at Rs 1.2 lakh plus taxes per person and includes stay, meals and therapies. And a three-night stay at Ananda starts at Rs 30,500 (ex-taxes) per person, per night and includes all meals and one spa treatment daily. These rates for such short duration stays, typically for three-five nights, are 15-20 per cent higher than in 2019. The rates for longer duration programmes, typically for 10-14 nights, are roughly the same, after accounting for inflation, and start at Rs 33,000 per person, per night. While 30 per cent of Ananda’s domestic guests came for the shorter duration stays earlier, now nearly half of them spend about a fortnight at the resort. Their most popular choices are the weight loss and ayurvedic detox programmes.

The rising popularity of wellness tourism has not gone unnoticed by the traditional hotel chains. On International Yoga Day in June, Taj Hotels introduced INNERgise, a programme designed to enhance one’s immunity through curated stays, rejuvenating spa treatments and nourishing meals. The customised three-, five- and seven-day itineraries begin with a consultation with a wellness coach, followed by a range of spa therapies and treatments and include guided yoga and meditation sessions. Taj has rolled out these packages at its properties in Shimla, Rishikesh, Coorg and Bekal, among others. The hotel chain has also introduced immunity-boosting meals on its home-delivery app, Qmin.

The ITC Grand Bharat launched its Swasthya Regime after the first lockdown last year. The three-, fiveand seven-night packages include ayurvedic wellness consultations and a series of spa therapies and menus curated for a holistic wellness experience. A three-day package costs Rs 74,990 and includes stay, meals and spa sessions. And at Bengaluru, New Delhi and Jaipur, The Leela Palace of fers one-on-one yoga sessions that need to be pre-booked.

It will be a while before international tourists return. In the meantime, wellness resorts and hotel chains are tapping the domestic traveller — a market they now realise has more value than short-term sustenance. “You have close to 12 million tourists who come into the country in any given year. But you have 25-30 million tourists who travel from India to other countries. It’s a captive clientele that we had overlooked. The potential is huge. Once international travel restarts, we see us having a 50-50 client mix and maybe slowly the domestic segment will increase to 60-40,” says Niraamaya’s Machado. While it took a pandemic to open the eyes of wellness resorts to the potential of the domestic market, ironically, the opposite is also true. Rather than sun, sea and sand, holidays could soon focus on spas, yoga and Ayurveda.

@smitabw