The booming global wellness industry

In 2018, the global wellness economy was estimated at $4.5 trillion. According to the Global Wellness Institute, wellness tourism grew from $563 billion in 2015 to $639 billion in 2017. i.e.- an annual increase of 6.5%. While COVID-19 may have offset some of these estimates, pre-pandemic, Asia-Pacific was poised for growth with wellness trips increasing 33% in the 2015-2017 time period with China and India at the forefront. 

To better understand the opportunities that Sri Lanka has in store in the global wellness industry, BIZnomics spoke to a few authority figures in the country’s wellness industry: Sri Lanka Tourism Chairperson Ms. Kimarli Fernando, Mr. Hiran Cooray, Chairman of Jetwing, Mr. Hashan Cooray of Jetwing Hotels and the current Treasurer of the Wellness Tourism Association of Sri Lanka and Ms. Geetha Karandawala, Director at Barberyn Reef Ayurveda Resort. Explaining Sri Lanka’s plan to capture the market, Ms. Kimarli Fernando said, “We have been studying the global wellness market and best practices to better understand how we can develop a strategy to capture and develop this emerging market.”  

Additionally, it should be noted is that the $639 billion niche market creates opportunities for wellness and all tourism and hospitality-related businesses including all stakeholders a part of both the tourism and wellness sectors.                  

But what is wellness tourism? 

Though wellness tourism is commonly conflated with medical tourism, there are differences between the two industries. Medical tourism is travel related to poor health, an injury or illness, whereas wellness tourism is travel related to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, reducing stress, preventing disease and enhancing the traveller’s wellbeing.  

Wellness tourism is a niche area of travel that transcends across different target audiences. Wellness tourists are two-fold: the primary wellness traveller and the secondary wellness traveller. The primary wellness traveller is solely motivated by wellness offerings – these would include visiting a wellness retreat, fitness retreat, Ayurveda treatment programme, etc. The secondary wellness traveller is the average traveller who seeks to maintain wellness or engage in wellness activities by visiting a gym, getting a massage or opting for healthy organic food. Of the two types of travellers, secondary wellness travellers account for a bulk of the wellness tourism expenditure globally.  

In the Asia-Pacific region alone, wellness tourism expenditure amounts to $136.7 billion of the $639 billion achieved in 2017. What is interesting is how there are 10.1 million direct jobs created due to the wellness tourism sector, the highest among all of the other geographic regions.

Challenges for Sri Lanka 

Wellness tourism aside, Sri Lanka’s tourism sector has been enduring the double challenge of not just the pandemic but before that in 2019, the devastating Easter Attacks. The tourism sector, which gradually began to show signs of recovery towards the last quarter of 2019, was once again upended due to the pandemic. According to the Tourism Industry Report – Fourth Quarter 2019 published by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, there was an 18% drop from December 2018 to December 2019, particularly in May 2019, a month after the Easter Attacks. 

However, the wellness tourism sector in itself comes with several challenges and limitations. Mr. Hiran Cooray and his son Hashan explained how the lack of regulation and licensing in wellness tourism in Sri Lanka caused significant damage.

“The lack of regulation can cause a series of implications across the wellness industry. To begin with, it starts to cheapen this exclusive product. Not only are you oversaturating the market, but result also in not having a high-quality offering. Quality aside, without proper knowledge, techniques, training and administering any wellness offering, be it Ayurveda medication or an Ayurvedic massage, it can be harmful to the tourist. Moreover, in a sector such as wellness tourism, ideally, you would want to attract high spenders,” said Mr. Hiran Cooray.  

Adding to this, Mr. Hashan Cooray also pointed out how this very lack of regulation and oversaturation of the market meant that Ayurveda services were not “getting the right price”. He also noted how the oversaturation of “spas” and “massage centres” makes it difficult to differentiate with genuine Ayurveda treatment centres.

According to the report by Global Wellness Institute (November 2018), wellness travellers are considered very high spending, high yielding tourists. In 2017 on average, international wellness tourists spent $1,528 per trip, 53% more than the typical international tourist. This further extended to domestic wellness tourists, who spent $609 per trip, 178% more than an average domestic tourist.  

Another common challenge voiced out by both Mr. Hiran Cooray and Ms. Geetha Karandawala is the social stigma associated with women employed in wellness tourism that result in high staff turnover. Barberyn Reef Ayurveda Resort was the first tourist hotel on the Southern Coast and the first hotel to break into the wellness tourism sector in Sri Lanka. 

“The idea of working in a spa or similar wellness-related establishment isn’t often looked at positively. This is true in both urban spaces and in the local communities that often live close to wellness resorts that are tucked away from the main cities where Ayurveda centres are associated with ‘massaging’ that results in a negative connotation. Moreover, Ayurveda doctors who work at dedicated wellness establishments such as Barberyn Reef Ayurveda Resort, often receive a government appointment elsewhere and take it up,” said Ms. Karandawala.  

She added that there wasn’t a holistic understanding of the wellness business model, target group and how to position Sri Lanka in the global wellness market. She went on to say that oftentimes, the gamut and scope of the local wellness sector are not understood and therefore, the tourism offerings become narrow and limited. 

Elaborating on the plans from Sri Lanka Tourism, Ms. Kimarli Fernando agreed that regional competitors including India (Kerala) and Thailand being at an advantage in positioning themselves having entered the playing field much earlier. She stated that while this was indeed a challenge, most competitors to Sri Lanka focus on curating wellness experiences centred on reactive treatment aspects of wellness, while Sri Lanka can promote illness prevention through the traditional activities of spas, yoga and Ayurveda. 

“While competitors focus on only one aspect of the wellness portfolio, opportunity lies for Sri Lanka to extend the wellness product beyond just health,” said Ms. Fernando. 

Reciprocating this sentiment was Mr. Hiran Cooray who also pointed out that due to the advantage of being a small country, it was easier for Sri Lanka to curate one-of-a-kind wellness packages that included not just the wellness element but also the different surroundings and landscapes Sri Lanka had to offer. Mr. Cooray proceeded to explain more on the Ayurveda tours offered by Jetwing Hotels, which enables a tourist who is in the country for Ayurveda treatments for a few weeks, to also travel to Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa etc. He explained that the tours were popular and it was easier for the Jetwing Group to provide a diverse experience as a result of owning multiple properties around the country. Confirming that, the Global Wellness Tourism Economy Report also mentions similar wellness tourism trends in Sri Lanka and explains how “Sri Lanka aggressively promotes wellness tourism with an Ayurvedic flavour, in conjunction with its wildlife, history, nature, and cultural offerings.” 

Sri Lanka’s direct competitors in the wellness tourism sector in the Asia-Pacific region according to the Global Wellness Institute are China, Japan, India and Thailand. 

“We need to look at how we define wellness. In Sri Lanka, Ayurveda is richer in scope and depth. We can’t compete with Kerala let alone India, as it is an already established market. We can look into partnerships and South-South collaborations to learn from them,” said Ms. Karandawala. She went on to explain how Sri Lanka already had its medical system of Deshiya Chikitsa (indigenous medicine) by the time Ayurveda was introduced. This combined with traditional medicinal knowledge we’ve received from South India and the Middle East has also resulted in Sri Lankan Ayurveda being richer in scope and depth. 

Way forward post-pandemic 

Looking forward, when expanding Sri Lanka’s wellness tourism potential, capturing data is essential. According to the Annual Statistical Report 2019 published by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, while 0.59% of all tourist arrivals visited for health and Ayurveda, this doesn’t demarcate the difference between medical and wellness tourism. Furthermore, the distribution of employment in the tourism sector does not state wellness. Instead denotes, 1% of “agencies providing recreational facilities”.

As indicated in the Global Wellness Tourism Economy Report, secondary wellness travellers, both domestic and international, seem to capture markets globally. Propelling on the country’s circumstances post-COVID 19 and travel restrictions, this would be an ideal opportunity to promote local tourism and capture this secondary wellness tourism market. Moreover, in the long run, with increased remote working opportunities, encouraging the “nexus of travel, work, and wellness” as indicated in the report is a positive strategy in attracting secondary wellness travellers. Sri Lanka has already begun looking into this with the introduction of the digital nomad visa system.

It’s promising, however, to note that Sri Lanka Tourism is strategically working with key stakeholders to position the destination to cater to the demands of the high-yielding wellness tourism sector. According to highlights from the Annual Statistical Report 2019, additional emphasis has being placed on the wellness sector, particularly in product development, branding, marketing and certification of wellness resorts focusing on Ayurveda and Hela Vedakama. This is imperative as the communication and narrative of wellness tourism is another aspect that goes a long way in attracting the high yielding wellness tourists to a country. 

During her interview, Sri Lanka Tourism Chairperson, Ms. Fernando added, “Sri Lanka Tourism has strategically studied the segment of wellness travel and recognises that this growing global travel trend, with 78% of affluent travellers seeking to include some elements of wellness in their travels, has tremendous potential.”

She is also hopeful for the tourism industry in the post-pandemic phase and explains that there would be a change in the way people travelled.  

“Post-pandemic we will see a huge shift in people wanting to connect with communities and nature when travelling. It will be important for people to ensure that their travel footprint is minimised and that their visit has a positive impact on the destination. This is an excellent opportunity for us to step up, elevate and differentiate our offering above health to holistic wellness,” said Ms. Fernando.

The Chairperson went on to say that Sri Lanka would need to curate a truly unique wellness offering encompassing food, nature, culture and our renowned hospitality. 

Ms. Karandawala is also hopeful of the wellness tourism sector in the future. While the present seems bleak, she explained how non-allopathic medicine and techniques gained prominence at the start of the pandemic and the present, which has also significantly changed lifestyles as we know it. She sees this as an opportunity that can be incorporated into a holistic wellness offering. 




Global Wellness Institute. (2018, November). Global Wellness Tourism Economy November 2018 

Global Wellness Institute. (2021). Global Wellness Institute. 

Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority. (2019). Tourism Industry Report Fourth Quarter 2019 

Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority. (2020a). Annual Statistical Report 2019 

Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority. (2020, August). Tourism Sri Lanka – Volume 02 August 2020 

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