In Russia, as in many other parts of the world, the interest in disease prevention and the desire to live a long but healthy life is steadily growing and this presents one of the biggest opportunities for growth in the spa sector.
The term curative & wellness tourism is the most appropriate in Russia because of its history of health resorts (sanatoriums) based around natural, therapeutic resources such as mineral water and mud. The resorts appeared around 300 years ago and flourished in the Soviet Union era when they were deemed essential for the health of its workforce.
In 1990, there were up to 14,000 sanatoriums in Russia according to Alexey Babkin’s book Special Types of Tourism and up to 50 million tourists travelled in the country annually, generating US$5bn (€4.2bn, £3.3bn). These traditional Soviet-type sanatoriums have become less popular in recent years, but there’s much potential for growth.
This market report, called an Overview of Wellness Tourism in Russia, is based on data from the Russian Union of Travel Industry and looks at trends and opportunities for development, as well as measures for improvement.
Currently, there are around 2,000 traditional health resorts in Russia. Typically, these resorts offer an all-inclusive pre-paid treatment package consisting of a medical check-up and at least three to four daily treatments. The choice of treatments are specific to each location based on their natural sources/curative factors such as climatic treatments/aerotherapy, mud therapy, balneological treatments and herbal medicine.
Fuelled mostly by Russian investment, there is also a rising number of hotels – over 9,000 in 2013. Many of these new, high-end hotels are managed by international operators and offer modern spa and wellness facilities.
Overall, domestic tourism in Russia is growing by 8-10 per cent annually and wellness tourism is also on an upward trajectory. Tour operator ALEAN reports that sales on wellness tours accounted for 30 per cent of total sales in 2013, compared to only 10 per cent in 2007. Inbound tourists play a minute part in this, with figures from the 2013 Moscow Medical and Health Tourism Congress showing that less than 1 per cent of foreign visitors stayed at Russian sanatoriums in 2012. In comparison, according to data from a wellness conference held at Intourmarket-2014 in Moscow, almost 33 million Russians travelled inside the country and 8 million (nearly 25 per cent) of them went to sanatoriums in 2013.
Notably, some citizens, such as people with disabilities and children, are still eligible for subsidised treatments at sanatoriums courtesy of the state.
Taking into account the vast territory of Russia and its diverse curative resources, nine wellness resort regions are officially recognised, with the three biggest and most popular resort areas located in the south of Russia and in Siberia.
• The Krasnodar region combines two of the most attractive elements for wellness holidays – curative treatments and beach tourism – thanks to its Black Sea coastline. It boasts the largest health and tourist complex in Russia, comprising 2,700 hotels and 1,238 sanatoriums. In total, there are 450,000 beds and the annual average occupancy is 86 per cent.
Another 22,000 beds were expected in 2014 following the Winter Olympics as Sochi is located in the region. International brands such as Radisson, Mercure, Rixos and Marriott all have newly-opened hotels there. Some traditional health resorts have also been refurbished. Together, these offer a combination of modern facilities, excellent curative treatments, health diagnostics and spas. However, the number of beds now exceeds demand as hopes for a big influx of tourists following the games have not been realised.
• More than 800,000 tourists a year visit the Caucasian Mineral Waters region which boasts around 30 types of mineral water that can reportedly cure almost any known disease. A high concentration of sanatoriums and resorts remain in the region which has been welcoming visitors for health purposes since the early 1800s. Its 200 resorts, with a total of 33,000 beds, have an average annual occupancy of 80-90 per cent.
• Situated 250m above sea level with highly ionized air, the town of Belokurikha in Siberia is a popular ski and spa resort. Balneology and mud treatments are a big focus of its 15 sanatoriums as the town has radon-rich thermal springs and healing muds are taken from the salty lakes of the Altai region. In addition to the sanatoriums, there are 15 hotels. In total, there’s a capacity for 5,475 guests and average occupancy is 80 per cent. In 2013, 127,000 tourists visited the resort for wellness purposes.
Wellness tourist trends
One of the greatest trends travel agents have noticed is a shift in the demographic of these wellness tourists. In the past, most wellness travellers were aged 45-70, but today they’re mostly 30-50 – although more than 50 per cent of customers are still women aged over 45.
Older wellness tourists in Russia, 40-years-old and over, still prefer traditional sanatoriums. They choose the destination according to the curative resources and therapeutic specialisations that match their own health concerns.
In contrast, younger wellness tourists, aged 30-40, tend to opt for beach holidays and spa centres. Most are not familiar with traditional domestic sanatoriums, but they travel abroad and are accustomed to western standards of resort service and look for these in their home country. In fact, there’s a growing preference for five-star sanatorium facilities and services across the board as even those staying at sanatoriums now expect comfortable accommodation.
Tour operators identify a number of measures for improvement, if wellness tourism is to grow in the future.
Creating legislation for the preservation of natural resources of health resorts is key, as is the need to raise the quality of services. As wellness tourism is such a specialised entity, the industry is also pushing for the creation of a sales education programme for travel agencies.
Meanwhile other initiatives are focused on drumming up more business. These include creating more off-peak/low season packages (unlike beach and ski travel, wellness tourism is not weather dependent) and relaxing visa restrictions for cruise ship tourists; and improving accessibility, such as cancelling VAT on domestic flights and subsidising year-round transportation to wellness resorts from the Russian Far East.
Another consideration is to develop curative and wellness tourism in alignment with social tourism. Subsidies from government, various private state funds and charities are available for any kind of tourism that helps people socially (including health improvement).
Overall, despite the difficult political and economical situation in Russia, it’s clear people are not going to cancel holidays to the detriment of their health. In fact, they’re building up a new habit of regular visits, sometimes up to two to three times a year according to RATA-News – the electronic newspaper for the Russian Union of Travel Industry. Moreover, as Russians value health over experiences, the demand for wellness tourism is more stable than for cultural/excursion trips. Resorts and countries may change, but health-improvement tourism will always be a trend.