Rest and relaxation: Efforts under way to boost spa and wellness tourism

These days more and more people are looking for an escape – from the demands of their everyday life and the pressures of work – and have the means to pay for a holiday that is not only about “getting away from it all”, but also restoring health and wellbeing. The global wellness tourism industry, which includes spas and more health-orientated treatment centres, saw revenues of $494bn in 2013, according to the Global Wellness Institute, and was dominated by European nations. The global spa industry was worth $94bn, recording a growth rate of about 7.7% a year.

High Spending

While the wellness segment in Malaysia grew 10% in 2014, the government hopes to develop the spa industry further to attract visitors with the money and inclination to spend on luxurious experiences. Global Wellness Institute’s data shows international wellness tourists spent $1639 per trip in 2013, which is 59% higher than the average tourist.

Malaysia aims to create 3540 jobs with a gross national income of RM374.1m ($92.6m) by 2020, under its plans to develop the industry as part of the tourism national key economic area. It envisages a vibrant spa industry as a way to boost income from high-yield tourists. “When people come on holiday they want to splurge a bit, especially when they see all the treatments available,” Baskaran Kosthi, owner of the Frangipani Spa in Langkawi and head of the Malaysian Association of Wellness and Spa (MAWSPA), told OBG. “The industry is growing and the Ministry of Tourism is backing it because of all the potential foreign currency flowing into this,” he continued.

Asia-Pacific is the fastest-growing region for wellness tourism, with 151.9m wellness-related tourism trips in 2013. Many of the spas are attached to luxury hotels and resorts, and the country faces stiff competition from more established players such as Thailand and Indonesia, as it attempts to expand its market share. In 2013 Malaysia did not even make it to the top 10 spa industry markets in the Asia-Pacific.

One of the challenges for the industry is perception, Baskaran said. He notes newspaper reports of raids on unlicensed spas and arrest of “guest relations officers” create bad press. There is sometimes criticism of the industry from religious bodies, he adds. Spas are required to be licensed, but these can be tricky to obtain and requirements vary in each state. In Penang, for example, licences will be approved for spas attached to a hotel or located in a mall. Some states have stopped issuing spa licences altogether.

Working Hard

The government agency set up to implement the nation’s Economic Transformation Programme, the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (PEMANDU), says the government is working hard to “boost positive awareness of the industry and dispel negative preconceptions towards industry professionals”. Part of that effort includes streamlining regulation and stepping up training.

To this end, the National Spa Council has been formed to regulate the industry and develop a rating system for the country’s spas, which has now been adopted by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. Only those receiving four- or five-star ratings are eligible to participate in the ministry’s promotional campaigns.

Working with the Ministry of Health, and other relevant public agencies and local authorities the guidelines, which are currently voluntary, cover hygiene, the cleanliness of the premises, product knowledge and storage, as well as staff training and expertise.

The number of rated spas increased from 196 in 2013 to 226 in 2014, according to PEMANDU’s progress report on the spa industry. Of those, 88 were rated four- or five-star. Many spas are locally owned and operated, and some have established themselves as luxury brands, including YTL’s Spa Village, which operates at each of the company’s resorts in Malaysia, as well as in Bali and the UK. Some international brands also have facilities in the country, including Mandara Spa, which has eight spas in Malaysia – four in the Klang Valley and four at beach and jungle resorts – and L’Occitane, which opened in Kuala Lumpur in 2015. Some have leveraged on Malaysia’s popular, but usually undeveloped, thermal springs to differentiate themselves, such as The Banjaran Hot-springs Retreat, owned by the Sunway Group.

As the industry grows, the government is trying to encourage more Malaysians to take up a career in the spa and wellness sector, which currently relies on workers from Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand. The goal is that by 2017 the industry will no longer be reliant on therapists recruited from outside Malaysia.

Training Efforts 

Seven centres of excellence (CoEs) have been approved by the government to lead the spa therapist training programme, which includes a work placement at an accredited spa in Malaysia. In 2014 five CoEs — Energy Academy, Stella-In Beauty Academy, Langkawi International Spa Academy, Jari Jari Academy and Beaubelle Academy — hired a total of 250 local spa therapists for the country.

Two additional CoEs — YTL International College of Hotel Management and Karisma Merdu — were approved by the government in 2014. These CoEs started taking in trainees in 2015.

Around 350 people have graduated from the government-backed training programme so far, well short of the 1500 Malaysia aimed to have by 2016, according to the Malaysian Association of Wellness and Spa. The association adds that while therapists can earn a good salary and have plenty of prospects for advancement many young people are deterred because of the industry’s poor image in Malaysia.

“It’s actually good money and you don’t have to stay as a therapist,” Baskaran said. “If you get a job in a hotel, it doesn’t mean that 10 years down the road you are going to own your own hotel. But if you are in a spa, you can own a spa. The opportunity is there.”

The government provides full sponsorship for lower-income students, but the training, which takes place over a year, costs only RM500 ($123.77) and those who complete the programme are almost guaranteed work. Spa operators note the demand for good staff is such that the best therapists often get lured away to rival establishments.

AmSpa, another industry body in Malaysia, has developed a training manual for spa therapists in collaboration with spa practitioners in the Philippines, Thailand and Bali. The 148-page manual was funded by the EU Asia-Invest programme and includes an eight-module training programme as well as sections on anatomy and physiology. The group has also published an operations manual for spa operators to ensure their facilities meet accepted standards.

According to MAWSPA the government must do more to ensure the industry has the manpower it needs to ensure spas appeal to the wealthier tourists that Malaysia is targeting. Baskaran thinks the tens of thousands who graduate in nursing and physiotherapy each year but are unable to find work in the medical sector, would be ideal candidates for the industry.

Massage Sense

Beyond licensing and training, Malaysia is also seeking to differentiate its spa treatments and products, and give it an edge over its more established competitors in South-east Asia. Sector players have started with a focus on massage, which is the most popular treatment at local spas.

Practitioners note that while the Thai and Balinese massages are marketed as though they have been around for centuries, they are, in fact quite new products. The Thai massage was conceived 45 years ago, while the Balinese massage is only 19 years old.

Over the past year, Malaysian spa experts have been developing what they call a signature Malaysian massage. Designed to be relaxing and therapeutic, the massage is derived from elements of Malay massage, traditional Chinese medicine, Indian techniques and the indigenous treatments of Borneo, using specially created, locally made oils.

The signature massage has also been designed as an experience with a special welcome tea, and batik covers and cloths for the spa table. The industry association, in collaboration with Tourism Malaysia, is now looking to film an instructional video, so that all practitioners can learn the key techniques. The idea is to market the massage overseas, in the same way that Balinese and Thai massage are now widely practised.

Destination Spa

Still, a spa must be more than a treatment, according to Baskaran. He believes that if the government is serious about developing the industry to appeal to international tourists, it must also encourage spa owners to develop their spas into destinations – the kind of high-end spa and wellness centres that are popular in countries such as Switzerland and are gaining traction in Thailand and Bali. These spas provide a complete health experience to their visitors including good food, health programmes and luxurious treatments with quality products.

“A spa is no longer just a treatment,” Baskaran said. “It’s an experience. We want to be transported to a different place. We want to be made to feel good.”