A growing number of tourists are coming to Saint Lucia and other Caribbean nations for more than just the sunshine. They’re travelling to the islands to pamper themselves, recuperate, manage their stress levels or simply take a week-long detox. These visitors form part of a growing and potentially very lucrative market – the Spa and Wellness sector.
The Spa and Wellness industry refers to economic activities that cater to the preservation and/or promotion of health. This is a broad remit covering manufacturing and distribution of cosmetic products, cosmetic procedures, and health promoting products and treatments.
Ask the average traveller to name a spa destination and they’re likely to name Thailand, India or the United States. These countries are the heavy hitters in the global market, along with Germany, France and Canada. By comparison, the Caribbean is a relatively underdeveloped competitor with fewer resources, less variety of services and a lack of clearly defined standards.
The region has struggled to effectively market its spa services, and this can be attributed to two crucial factors: poor brand identity and visibility, and limited capacity. In terms of the former, Caribbean spas and wellness centres have suffered from a lack of support at the institutional level. Policymakers, governments and financial institutions often overlook this niche, considering it too small, or too high-risk. As a result, investment in the sector is limited and most operators are small or micro-sized businesses with no ability to scale up.
Branding has proved difficult because of the varying quality of treatments throughout the region. Lack of clearly defined best practices and a consistent standard adopted by all practitioners hampers efforts to package and sell the Caribbean wellness product as a whole. In order to stand out from the crowd, that product must offer something unique to consumers yet, despite its rich cultural heritage, the region’s spas have not been able to significantly differentiate themselves from spa destinations in the US or Europe.
In 2010, the Caribbean Export Development Agency began examining the Spa and Wellness sector to identify its weaknesses and areas of opportunity. The regional trade body developed a four-year strategy for development and also undertook training activities and other initiatives, with support from the Caribbean Development Bank.
Among the top priorities arising from these efforts was the need to develop national standards, the importance of capitalising on current trends to better sell a uniquely Caribbean product, and the creation of a regional body that would speak for spas all over the islands.
“Spa and Wellness is a massive market, a trillion-dollar market,” says Caribbean Export Services Specialist Allyson Francis. “We see great potential [but] one of the biggest challenges we have is standards. Many jurisdictions do not have national standards. When we talk about exporting, you have to be sure you can meet international standards and give quality service.”
Francis, who singles out Saint Lucia for praise in pushing to develop a country standard, says Caribbean Export has worked with spas in several member states to draw up a model quality manual that is aligned to international benchmarked standards.
Taking a regional approach makes sense, but fostering regional cooperation has proven difficult according to Francis, who would like to see more engagement from spas. “We need a regional body to pull together and speak on behalf of the spas,” she says. “It is a thriving sector; we need to get people to be more proactive and get themselves out there to take advantage of the opportunities.”
Francis would like to see an updated and fully comprehensive website operating under the banner of the Caribbean Spa and Wellness Association. This would give the industry a voice and an audience that could effectively market its products to the world. “We want the sector to develop a website. If people are not aware of you, they cannot work with you. Advertise and get yourself out there.”
The Caribbean should not be a hard sell. Despite the region’s obstacles, it has the potential to become a hub for health. Its temperate climate, combined with easy access to indigenous healing foods and fauna, make it ideal for the health-conscious consumer. These visitors typically seek out experiences that are as ‘green’ as possible, looking for a relaxed, unhurried environment and unprocessed, natural ingredients – both in their diet, and their cosmetics.
Francis says: “People want healthy, they want natural and they want eco-friendly. We can utilise what we have in nature such as natural springs, seaweed, mud.”
And exploring the trend for natural and healthy experiences can lead spas away from the traditional hotel setting into something more unique that could include sports activities and organic dining options. “People are now very health-conscious; they do not just come for a massage, they want the whole programme to support relaxation. There needs to be investment in facilities that go beyond just hot tubs and spas, so we can move away from the hotel environment to a holistic experience.”
Doubling down on health could spread the economic benefits beyond the wellness sector. An integrated provider network would encompass not just spa practitioners but organic farmers, hospitality staff and sports trainers. It also helps the industry develop a more regional brand, underpinned by local products.
“We urge practitioners to look at incorporating the cultural elements of the Caribbean so people can really have a Caribbean experience when they come to the region,” says Francis. “We have been working with member states to develop indigenous products to get that Caribbean experience. Incorporating cultural aspects can help us differentiate our product.”
INVESTING FOR THE FUTURE
Becoming a world-renowned spa destination takes considerable investment: in training, product development and facilities. Training all spa staff to the same, best practices will help the region develop a trusted reputation, as well as ensuring that international visitors receive high-quality care.
Investing in indigenous products is necessary to fully exploit the trend for locally-sourced, natural foods and cosmetics. While the Caribbean contains plenty of grassroots knowledge about homegrown therapies and ‘bush medicine’, relatively few of these methods have been scientifically evaluated or tested. More research and development is needed in this area as people show an increasing interest in alternative medicine.
For tourists seeking a Spa and Wellness experience, ambiance and aesthetics are everything. Spa facilities must be continually upgraded and improved to create a welcoming and luxurious environment and ensure they provide the latest services and treatments.
With greater support and a higher level of stakeholder engagement, Caribbean spas can become a key driver of economic growth in the region. Francis says the sector is too valuable to ignore. “There is great potential for Spa and Wellness in terms of development, employment and opportunities. We do not want to give up on it. We want to continue to work with spas.”