A yoga session is held at Chateau du Sureau in Oakhurst — an example of wellness tourism. That travel category is expected to hit $1.2 trillion by 2027. Photo by Visit Yosemite.

published on April 27, 2021 - 2:51 PM
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With access to national parks, wine and fresh food, the San Joaquin Valley could be a hotspot for travelers looking to slow down, cool off and engage in wellness tourism.

The wellness tourism market is distinctly different from the medical tourism market, said Samuel Lankford, chair of Fresno State’s Department of Recreation Administration. While medical tourism draws patients traveling for treatments and hospital stays, wellness tourism pertains to stress relief, mindfulness and proper eating and exercise.

The global wellness tourism market hit $735.8 billion in 2020, according to Statista, but is projected to hit $1.2 trillion by 2027.

All US regions have something to offer to wellness tourists, Lankford said, but different areas capitalize on traveler’s motivations. For example, Hawaii’s wellness tourism industry tends to offer meditation and yoga and Arizona focuses on those who enjoy the desert.

“There can be a market in the Valley, but we really are the gateway to the natural resources and mountains,” Lankford said. “Opportunities exist for our wineries for this tourism with some unique lodging, food and beverages, along with programs for yoga, cooking, organic farming etc.”

In 2017, while the North American market, consisting of the US and Canada, was behind Europe and the Asia-Pacific region in total wellness trips, it led in the amount spent on them at $241.7 billion, according to the Global Wellness Institute (GWI).

Visitors in the area have increasingly sought out wellness activities and experiences in the Valley, said Brooke Smith, Visit Yosemite Madera County public relations director.

According to GWI, 18 US states were promoting wellness tourism in 2018, more than double from 2013, focused mostly in the West on access to natural hot springs and spas. More current data on the industry will be available in November.

The definition of wellness varies from visitor to visitor, Smith said, which allows Visit Yosemite to direct tourists to a wide variety of businesses and resources, including hikes, spas, wineries, guided tours and meditation retreats.

Susan Madden, meditation teacher and owner of Oakhurst-based Mindful Café, has had fun meditation retreats since 2016 and expanded into guided “forest bathing” in September 2020. Forest bathing, based on the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, is a meditation practice focused on qualities of being in nature, Madden said.

While people can do it on their own, Madden said a guided session is often more fulfilling.

“I think people are really looking for ways to get away from the stress of their everyday lives,” Madden said. “I offer something really unique and it’s something that gets a lot of word-of-mouth because I can explain it, but you don’t really understand it until you experience it.”

While Madden started offering forest bathing as an extension of her mediation practice, she said she saw demand for activities that boast a number of mental and physical benefits provided by both meditation and nature.

Unlike hiking, Madden said forest bathing isn’t particularly physical, which is why families and people with physical limitations book her guided meditations as well.

Wonder Valley Ranch Resort and Conference Center near Sanger, which is a venue open to conferences, wedding, parties and other events, has also found a space in the local wellness tourism market by providing space for meditation retreats, said Event Sales Manager Barbara Dillon.

While the facility doesn’t run the retreats itself, because of the size, location and natural appeal of the property, they are ideally positioned to host wellness retreats with a range of activities, from conventions with speakers to yoga and paddle boarding retreats, Dillon said.

Wonder Valley is able to host 15-20 wellness retreats a year, Dillon said. She said it’s valuable to Wonder Valley both to expand further into the wellness market and to have such overtly positive events on their grounds.

Research is limited on the area of tourism, but Fresno State’s Lankford said he believes COVID-19 has likely enhanced the wellness tourism market. Engaging in wellness tourism would be a strong area of diversification for travel in the Central Valley, he said.

“Business and government need to partner on programs that would help people stay a few days longer while they are traveling,” Lankford said. “(Valley businesses could) find ways to extend visits with strong programs centered around healthy eating, healthy lifestyles, cooking, organic gardening etc.”

Smith said with restaurants opening back up and restrictions lifting, she has a happy outlook for engagement in wellness tourism this summer.

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