Wellness retreats are becoming a popular way to travel and focus on personal health and wellbeing. Offering both escape and adventure, retreats are increasingly taking place in tropical and secluded locations around the world. Although wellness retreats are intended to improve your wellbeing, health risks are still present and can quickly derail your experience. Knowing the risks and being prepared can ensure you have a fulfilling and enjoyable trip.
Wellness and tourism
Wellness can be defined as an active process of growing one’s physical, mental, and social health. With more and more of us managing stress and living with chronic health conditions, interest in wellness has grown rapidly. This has led to an extensive wellness economy that offers products and experiences intended to promote health and wellbeing.
The wellness economy consists of various industries, including beauty and antiaging, nutrition and weight-loss, and wellness tourism. The wellness tourism industry has expanded rapidly in recent years and is now growing twice as fast as total worldwide tourism . Wellness tourism is a specific type of travel that promotes a positive and holistic health experience. It is often marketed as a luxury experience, with wellness tourists spending approximately 61% more than the average international tourist and 164% more than the average domestic tourist .
Wellness tourism is largely concentrated in Europe, North America, and Oceania but countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, South Africa and Vietnam are also becoming popular destinations.
Wellness retreats are a popular option for travellers who want to pursue wellbeing activities away from home. They provide a dedicated environment for improving wellbeing through topics that focus on spiritual growth, personal development, physical fitness, diet, relaxation, and smoking cessation.
Some forms of wellness retreats (often referred to as “healing retreats”) are designed for those with a specific health concern such as chronic stress or a pre-existing condition like diabetes, cancer, or a mental health condition.
Helpful tips for a healthy retreat
Wellness retreats are designed to enhance your health and wellbeing, but injuries and illness can still occur. Knowing the risks and how to prevent them will allow you to focus on the experience at your retreat.
Research your destination
A little research goes a long way toward keeping you healthy! Start researching your destination a few months before departure and exercising if physical activities are planned for your trip.
- Make sure your routine immunizations are up to date and find out if you need travel-related vaccinations.
- Take the time to research and learn about the health risks at your destination. Health risks can differ depending on the season, region of the country, and the type of travel you do. Our Country Health Advice database is a good place to start.
- Retreats can take place in a variety of settings, from hotels in urban centres to jungle spas in remote locations. Wherever you are, it is important to know how far you will be from a reliable hospital with practitioners that speak your language in case of an emergency. It is also wise to pack a travel medicine kit so that you can treat minor injuries at your destination.
Some common risks in tropical locations include:
- Mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika virus, Malaria, Yellow Fever, Chikungunya, and Dengue. Familiarize yourself with the symptoms of these diseases and know how to protect yourself from mosquito bites. If your destination is in a Malaria risk area, consult your healthcare practitioner about antimalarial medication. (See our World Malaria Risk Chart for details.)
- Avoid swimming and water sports such as canoeing or kayaking in streams, rivers, lakes or other fresh water that is known to have Leptospirosis or Schistosomiasis.
- Histoplasmosis is a fungal infection that typically affects travellers participating in outdoor activities such as cave exploration, cave diving, or ecotourism.
- Road collisions are the number one cause of death among travellers. Learn about road safety at your destination and avoid travelling late at night, on unlit roads, and on mopeds or rickshaws.
- Fake medications are widespread around the world and can cause serious illness. Avoid buying medications from unlicensed pharmacies, online, or street vendors. Make sure that you pack all necessary medication (plus an extra supply) before you leave home. In an emergency, only purchase medication from a reputable pharmacy such as a university hospital.
Food and water
Gastrointestinal illnesses caused by bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and toxins can occur anywhere you travel. You can be exposed through contaminated food and water, poor food handling practices, and lack of proper handwashing and body hygiene.
Ask in advance how food is prepared and served during the retreat. To prevent food-borne illnesses:
- Eat foods that are well cooked and served hot, and fruits and vegetables that you can peel yourself.
- Make sure that food is prepared with treated water.
- Avoid unrefrigerated and uncovered foods like buffets.
- Avoid raw or undercooked meat, eggs, and seafood. Unpeeled vegetables and leafy greens can also be risky, particularly if they are unwashed, washed with untreated water, or prepared in unsanitary conditions.
- Wash your hands often, especially before eating and after using the toilet. If water and soap are not available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
- Inquire about water quality at the retreat. If you are unsure of the tap water quality, drink boiled, treated, or bottled water from a reliable brand.
- Pack oral rehydration salts (ORS) to rehydrate you if you have diarrhea. ORS are available from your local pharmacy or travel health clinic.
See our tipsheet on Traveller’s Diarrhea for more information on food and water safety.
Read the fine print of your travel health insurance policy to ensure that you have the appropriate coverage for your trip.
- Injuries that result from common outdoor activities (like surfing, diving, and camel riding) may not be covered by your policy. Consider what activities and excursions you are planning to participate in during your retreat and if you will be covered in the event of an emergency.
- Ensure that you are covered for medical evacuation, particularly if you will be travelling to a remote area or an area where medical care is not easily accessible.
- Wellness retreats and the affiliated costs of travel can add up. Consider purchasing trip cancellation and interruption coverage in case you need to end your trip sooner than you planned. Note that these types of policies will not cover expenses that result from cancellation or interruption due to a pre-existing health condition.
- Keep in mind that your policy will likely not cover you for an illness or injury that results from elective procedures, treatments, or health interventions that you receive abroad (such as an extreme diet, oxygen therapy, or acupuncture).
Download our Guide to Travel Health Insurance to learn more about choosing travel health insurance that fits your needs.
Travelling with a pre-existing condition
For travellers with a pre-existing condition, retreats can offer a valuable opportunity to focus on healing and improving overall health.
- Consult your healthcare practitioner for advice on managing your condition while you travel. Bring the itinerary of the retreat to your appointment, including any information about meals and activities, to help your practitioner determine if the retreat is right for you.
- If the retreat includes any medical treatments, procedures, or interventions, consult your healthcare practitioner for advice. Certain wellness services may not be proven to improve health outcomes or could have side effects that can affect your condition.
- Find a doctor or specialist at your location that speaks your language to ensure continuity of care and in case of an emergency. Check our Medical Directory for a nearby clinic.
- If you are travelling with a mental health condition, consider how you are feeling before you go and ensure that you have effective ways of coping with symptoms. Taking the time to focus on your wellbeing during a retreat may trigger unexpected emotions that can cause you to feel worse before you feel better. Before you go, contact a mental health professional at your destination in case you need support or keep in touch with your practitioner back home. For more guidance, see our Travel and Mental Health Series.
- Know how to travel with your prescription medication.
In even the most serene locations, health risks can still be present. Taking the time to be prepared before you go reduces the risks so you can enjoy your retreat and come home feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.
 Global Wellness Institute, Global Wellness Economy Monitor, January 2017. Available from: https://www.globalwellnessinstitute.org/2017-press-conference
Photo by Marion Michele, Unsplash.
Article by Claire Westmacott.