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(Yonhap Interview) S. Korea has great potential in wellness travel industry: U.S. expert

All Headlines 11:38 September 01, 2016

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, Sept. 1 (Yonhap) -- South Korea has enough potential to become the next wellness travel destination if its tourism industry packages its cultural, natural and religious assets for target customers and tells compelling stories, an American industry expert said.

Wellness tourism is a relatively new concept that broadens the scope of medical and health tourism by seeking to improve or maintain health and quality of life through purpose-driven travels for spas, beauty, fitness, meditation and other healthy activities.

Buoyed by a rising influx of tourists for medical and beauty treatment, the government has sought ways to develop themed tours for health-conscious travelers and vowed to expand support to develop unique programs in cooperation with local communities.

Camille Hoheb, founder and president of Wellness Tourism Worldwide, a U.S.-based wellness travel service company, said the first step to develop a national brand will be identifying key assets and finding ways to incorporate them into cultural immersion experiences that can resonate with the global audience.

"I don't think Korea needs to invent something to create a wellness tourism branded destination because you already have what it takes in terms of assets. You have cultural, natural and spiritual assets, as well as food, indigenous healing tradition, focus on beauty in mind and spirit," Hoheb said during an interview with Yonhap News Agency.

"It's not a matter of developing something new. It's a matter of taking already existing assets and packaging them and seeing what resonates to consumers, especially in your market."

Hoheb was speaking on the sidelines of the "International Forum on Wellness Tourism 2016" hosted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in Seoul on Wednesday, in which government and industry officials in the tourism, hotel and health sectors discussed the latest market trends and strategies.

Although wellness travel is a new concept worldwide, the market has rapidly expanded over the past few years thanks to rising interest in healthier lifestyles and balance between work and life in industrialized countries.

According to SRI International, the global wellness tourism market is estimated at 446 trillion won (US$438.6 billion) in 2013, accounting for 14 percent of the total tourism industry and more than double that of medical tourism.

While there is some misunderstanding that wellness travel is mostly about spa or yoga, Hoheb said the main idea is about coming back as "a better and healthier version of yourself" through "recurring and repetitive trips to maintain your healthy lifestyle."

"It's a new concept worldwide. Around 2008, medical tourism was at its pinnacle, and that's actually when I got involved with the wellness travel," said Hoheb, who has a master's degree in health care administration. "Wellness tourism really came on the forefront about three or four years ago. It's not about a fixed type of opportunities where you may go to a country only for a procedure."

While South Korea has mostly attracted travelers from Asia, especially China, she said it's time to build interests in the Western world by leveraging its assets already in place and encouraging people to have multidimensional cultural experiences.

She said temple stays are a good concept for those who want to reduce their stress levels and think about the essence of life. She also sees opportunities of healthy Korean food being linked with the wellness travel concept.

Other unique experiences the trendsetter had during her stay here was "jjimjilbang," or public saunas, where locals hang out and do health and beauty rituals. Large ones are equipped with restaurants, outdoor swimming pools and hair salons in addition to the usual baths and saunas.

Considering Korea's thriving beauty industry, she also suggested that incorporating cosmetic products with spa experiences will be a smart strategy to create a broader scope of activities.

"The purchase of the product will be the byproduct from the experience. I think the focus should be on the experiences, not just on the product themselves," she said.

Traditional Korean medicine, which seeks to treat patients' illnesses from a holistic perspective to help them regain balance in their overall systems, could attract people who have interest in oriental healing traditions, she added.

"Korean medicine will be a huge interest for wellness travelers for a number of reasons. That is a huge cultural asset. So the focus of wellness travel is about looking at the indigenous healing traditions and you have one, you just have to leverage it," Hoheb said.

On top of mixing traditional and contemporary culture, the expert suggested the tourism industry should take advantage of Korea's advanced technology to open up more opportunities to broader audiences.

"The differentiating factor for Korea is that you're such an innovative country and especially with technology. There may be an opportunity that hasn't even been thought of yet. There will be another aspect to this."

ejkim@yna.co.kr
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