Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest growing spa and wellness destination in the world. What is driving this expansion and what more can be done to establish the region as a world leader in the field? Beth McGroarty, research director at the Global Wellness Institute, discusses how this nascent industry is taking shape against a challenging backdrop.
Sub-Saharan Africa is not a region you might readily associate with wellness tourism. Until 2007, there were less than 400 modern spas across the entire region, with 35 of its 49 countries offering no spas at all. Although these countries did have a rich seam of wellness traditions, those practices had not yet been packaged up for international consumers.
These figures, from the Global Wellness Institute’s 2007 report, provide a snapshot of a region on the cusp of change. By the time GWI released its next report in 2014, the number of spas had quadrupled to 1,544, and the number of countries featuring spas had tripled to 42. The market as a whole had surged to $800 million – 186% growth since 2007 – and wellness-related trips had nearly doubled in the previous year alone.
New hotel and resort spas had opened in Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda, Botswana, Mauritius and Seychelles among others.
As of 2013, spa tourism in the region was still not high. For purposes of contrast, the Asia-Pacific region had 32,451 spas, and Europe and North America were not far behind. However, the trend was clear: sub-Saharan Africa had become the fastest growing spa and wellness travel market in the world.
With new research pending – GWI is due to release its newest report in October 2016 – it is unclear whether or not this prodigious growth rate has been sustained. However, it does seem that the region is starting to close in on its true wellness tourism potential.
“The pure growth is very impressive, but of course it starts from a small base, and Sub-Saharan Africa remains the smallest global spa and wellness travel industries,” explains Beth McGroarty, research director at the Global Wellness Institute. “This fast growth is driven by numerous factors.”
Perhaps most importantly, Africa as a whole has witnessed strong economic growth and a surge in tourism. Nearly four times as many international visitors arrived in 2014 as they did in 1990. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, travel and tourism contributed $44.5bn to sub-Saharan African GDP in 2014, a figure expected to rise to $75.9bn by 2025.
Alongside the surge in international tourism, Africa’s middle class is growing rapidly. There is also a small but super-rich upper class with both the desire and the means to focus on wellness.
“These demographics have an interest in relaxation, beauty treatments, and health maintenance, which have grown both the hotel, day and resort spa segments, especially in high-growth economies like South Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria,” explains McGroarty.
Then there’s the abiding macro trend towards experiential travel. In essence, many tourists are shunning interchangeable luxury holidays in favour of something that reads as ‘authentic’.
“People are increasingly demanding new, authentic experiences they can’t get ‘just anywhere’, and Africa is perceived as the final frontier for many travellers,” says McGroarty. “Additionally, Africa has a wealth of unique, under-the-radar traditional wellness and healing practices and ingredients that fascinate the authenticity-craving international traveller.”
Its emerging spa market, then, aims to accommodate both subsets of travellers – elite African consumers, who may be seeking a more Westernised spa experience, and international visitors, who want something they couldn’t get at home.
This can be a tricky proposition: how do you ensure your destination captures a strongly African sensibility while still fitting the bill for a luxury spa? For those who get it right, it’s a matter of knowing your audience: embracing your local traditions and indigenous ingredients, but presenting them in a way likely to entice a homegrown clientele.
“The middle class is growing – there are more African billionaires right now – and then you have people like me, who’ve had the opportunity to live all over the world and have money to spend, and want to go back home and have the same top-of-the-line service you have in New York or Tokyo,” said Magatte Wade at the 2015 Global Spa and Wellness Summit.
A Sengalese entrepreneur, Wade created the beauty line Tiossan. Her range is centred around black seed oil, which Sufi healers have described as ‘the remedy for everything, except death’. Whether or not that promise is realised, her products have become a global success, with a high media profile and customers all around the world.
A basic massage and Jacuzzi package, then, is unlikely to stir much demand. Many spas incorporate a distinctly African treatment menu. For instance, Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti in Tanzania offers a signature Kifaa Massage. This features a rungu – a wooden baton representing the warrior status within the Masai culture – and a deep pressure massage using Tanzanian baobab oil.
While standalone spa resorts are seeing strong growth, particularly in coastal regions, much of the boom has had to do with developers broadening their focus. Many existing tourist hotspots, such as safari lodges and game reserves, are now factoring in a wellness component.
“Safaris are getting less sedentary – just bouncing around in a jeep – and now involve hiking, safari on horses, safari with yoga class breaks, etcetera,” says McGroarty. “Key destinations often have the safari and wildlife focus married to spa and wellness, while Africa’s beaches are attracting well-heeled surfers seeking surf and spa.”
Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat, in South Africa, is based on a natural heritage site. Visitors can explore the local landscape as their whims take them, before heading back for a massage in an outdoor spa gazebo or a meditation session in a secluded garden.
Saasab in Kenya is a safari spa, marrying high-end design with bucket list experiences – it invites guests to ‘fly camp in the wilderness, sleeping beneath the African stars’. The Kwandwe Private Game Reserve in South Africa offers bush walks, in-room treatments and a ‘save the rhino’ drive. And Norman Carr Walking Safaris in Zambia, the first to introduce the concept, are well-established as a choice for active safari-goers.
If you take ‘wellness’ to include environmental stewardship in additional to personal upkeep, then the trend is clearer still. With so-called ‘voluntourism’ on the rise (i.e., short-term volunteering projects for international travellers), a number of resorts are including an element of community outreach.
“This aspect is especially important to many international travellers to Africa who know of the horribly unhappy colonialist history,” says McGroarty. “For instance, the gorgeous wellness/safari/conservation retreat, Segera Retreat in Kenya, has so many community and wilderness conservation programs – and hosts a gallery of wonderful Kenyan art. Their spa uses local soil and spice scrubs, traditional African medicinal plants, and has centerpiece experiences like a rock bath with camel’s milk and an authentically Islamic rasul steam tower.”
Of course, while nobody would begrudge this aspect of spa tourism, it does give rise to a rather uncomfortable question: does sub-Saharan Africa have an image problem, which might keep a lid on further wellness growth?
McGroarty thinks that, if wellness tourism really is going to gain momentum, the industry in general will need a well-tailored communication strategy.
“To many people in the world, sadly, the only headlines or images of Sub-Saharan Africa are disease, violence and terrorism, and safari,” she says. “It’s all about changing that image – and adding new images. African governments need to promote their nature, adventure and wellness tourisms strongly, and it’s just common sense that the wellness message is the right strategy to rebrand the region, when disease and violence have been a cliche.”
In short, wellness tourism can cast a kind of ‘healthy halo’ over a region, which in turn creates further demand. By this stage, spa growth becomes self-perpetuating.
We haven’t got there yet. To date, wellness tourism in the region remains reasonably small and niche, with nowhere near the permeation we have seen in, say, parts of Asia. But McGroarty sees strong grounds for optimism – and we shall soon find out whether the latest GWI figures bear this out.
“Focusing on what is unique and authentic – spreading that message – is a key way to grow spa tourism in the region,” says McGroarty. “You must have a differentiator, and the modern traveller really seeks the new, the real, and the indigenous. This market has so much potential, the growth is happening and it just takes some patience and a real plan.”
This article appears in the Autumn 2016 edition of Hotel Management International