Wellness tourism in Iceland

What is health tourism and why is it growing?

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(Last updated on: 19/08/2022)

Health tourism is a growing trend around the world. But what is health tourism and why is it so popular? Read on to find out…

What is health tourism?

Health tourism is a tricky one to define. It is more of an umbrella term, encompassing both wellness tourism and medical tourism. These two types of tourism may seem quite different, but they both fundamentally have health at their core. So, health tourism can be defined as follows:

Health tourism covers those types of tourism which have as a primary motivation, the contribution to physical, mental and/or spiritual health through medical and wellness-based activities which increase the capacity of individuals to satisfy their own needs and function better as individuals in their environment and society.

This definition comes from an executive summary published by the World Tourism Organization and the European Travel Commission in 2018. As you can see, the exploration of health tourism in itself is a relatively new idea. The two organisations also provided the following definitions of wellness and medical tourism respectively:


Wellness tourism is a type of tourism activity which aims to improve and balance all of the main domains of human life including physical, mental, emotional, occupational, intellectual and spiritual. The primary motivation for the wellness tourist is to engage in preventive, proactive, lifestyle enhancing activities such as fitness, healthy eating, relaxation, pampering and healing treatments.       

Medical tourism is a type of tourism activity which involves the use of evidence-based medical healing resources and services (both invasive and non-invasive). This may include diagnosis, treatment, cure, prevention and rehabilitation.   

What is wellness tourism?

The growth of health tourism

There are many reasons as to why health tourism as an industry is growing. People are keener than ever to put their health and wellbeing first – especially now we are 2 years into a global pandemic. As a population, we are more aware now than ever before how our health can hang in the balance. And just knowing this, coupled with all of the other changes brought about by the pandemic as well as the general ease of accessing information, mean that life is generally more stressful. So it is no wonder that we are looking for wellness trips to calm and soothe ourselves – and to affordable and accessible medical procedures that may be unavailable at home…

The UK sees health tourism as a distinct and negative phenomenon. The media uses the term to refer to people who travel to the UK deliberately in order to access free medical treatment from the National Health Service. This is seen as leeching off the state, and as you can imagine is particularly frowned upon by many in the country. However, reports show that the government estimates ‘health tourism’ costs the NHS only £300m annually – or 0.3% of their budget! But due to this, new laws are in place to charge people who do not ‘ordinarily reside’ in the UK if they use the NHS.

Why is health tourism important?

Health tourism is important for many reasons. Looking at it from an economical point of view, it provides a boost to local economies when people travel to a destination for any reason. So heading to a summer yoga retreat in Santorini or getting some dental work done in Turkey is contributing to the local economy. And it’s not just the cost of your treatment or stay – you will also purchase food and drink, maybe even souvenirs. You might extend your trip and do some sightseeing with local tour companies too. All of these things mean a cash injection for the area and its inhabitants.

Linked to this is that health tourism often provides a cheaper opportunity to do something you were going to do at home. Travelling for optional surgery or going to a small spa in a remote village might be much cheaper than doing so in your home country. In this way, health tourism actually provides people with a way to save money.

Health tourism is also important as it is a reflection of my earlier point – people are taking more of an interest in their health. Regardless of whether it’s wellness tourism or medical tourism, health tourists are travelling with the primary focus of improving their mind, body or life in some way. This is obviously a positive factor for society.

Health tourism activities

As health tourism combines wellness and medical tourism, the activities it involves are anything which falls under these categories. Essentially, anything you do as a tourist which is aimed at improving your health is classed as health tourism. See a list of activities below:

  • Dental/dentistry
  • Orthopedics
  • Cosmetic/plastic surgery
  • Cardiology
  • Bariatric surgery 
  • Fertility treatment
  • Eye surgery
  • Ears, nose and throat
  • Organ transplants
  • Rehabilitation
  • Alternative medication access
  • Yoga retreats
  • Spa visits
  • Writing retreats
  • Meditation centres
  • Weight loss or healthy eating retreats
  • Sensory deprivation

There are many destinations you can visit as a health tourist. Your home country may also be a health tourism location for people from other countries. It is all contextual and subjective, depending on what exactly you are looking to get out of your trip…

What is health tourism?

Iceland

This is a popular place for health tourism – particularly when it comes to wellness. With its geothermal pools, breathtaking scenery, infinity pools and mountain hiking areas the options are endless! A very popular part of Iceland for wellness activities is Myvatn Nature Baths, where the alkaline in the water has a lot of minerals and is incredibly beneficial for the treatment of skin conditions. Because of this, it can also be seen as a destination which works for medical purposes – making it a dead cert for health tourism.

Turkey

Ever heard of the saying ‘Turkey teeth’? It doesn’t come from nowhere! The reason this term exists is because many people (particularly younger people, celebrities, and influencers) flock to Turkey to have dental treatment done for cosmetic purposes. They want straighter, whiter and brighter teeth. Something like this might cost double or triple in the UK, for example, than what it would in Turkey. Plus, visitors get to combine their trip with sun, sea and sand!

India

India is a big one for health tourism as it has a big wellness tourism industry combined with many options for medical tourists to have cheaper procedures done. Being such a spiritual country, it is no wonder that people come here for wellness purposes. The Indian government readily promotes the country as a hub for yoga, Sidha, naturopathy and Ayurveda – citing the ‘spiritual philosophy that has been integral to the Indian way of life’. There are retreats right across the country, particularly in countryside areas but also in the bustling cities which mean it works for both primary AND secondary wellness tourism.

Primary wellness tourism is when someone’s whole trip is focused on wellness; it is their sole reason for travel, and the major component of their trip. Every aspect of their holiday is tailored to wellness. Secondary wellness tourism is when general tourists incorporate some aspect of wellness (a massage on the beach during an all-inclusive Mexican vacation) into their holiday.

India is also a huge destination when it comes to medical tourism. Locations such as Chennai, Maharashtra and Kerala are really popular for medical procedures, with costs being about one tenth of those in either the UK or the USA. Medical tourists travel to India for alternative medicine, cardiac procedures, bone-marrow transplants, eye surgery and hip replacements in particular.

Hawaii

Beautiful Hawaii is like one big spa in itself. Primary wellness tourists visit here in droves to experience the therapeutic salt water, the laid back atmosphere, the glorious sunshine and the traditional practices of omilomi massage and pohaku (hot stone treatment). With scenery that will leave you lost for words, it is one of the most relaxing places in the world which is why wellness tourism is so big here – and so, by extension, is health tourism.

Thailand

This stunning country has cutting edge technology and beautiful spaces to relax – making it ideal for health tourism encompassing both wellness and medical tourism. People tend to head here for small elective surgeries, choosing to get the procedure done for a lower price and recover somewhere beautiful! And there are so many options for wellness tourists, too. From Thai massage parlours to serene meditation retreats on beaches where the sunsets are bright pink and shiny gold, you couldn’t ask for somewhere more suited to a relaxing wellness trip.

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