Travel: The New Prescription

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Tourism is generally promoted more for its beneficial economic externalities than for the health and social benefits. However, there is little doubt that vacations make a significant contribution to quality of life, and several studies have shown that vacations have a positive impact on travelers’ physical and psychological wellbeing – benefits which they take back to the office. Even the simple act of planning a holiday can lead to increased happiness.

Previous research indicates that people who take vacations sleep better and are less likely to be tense or depressed. They are less prone to chronic diseases such as heart disease, hypertension and Type 2 diabetes. Travel stimulates the brain and promotes the growth of new synapses, heightens creativity, and may even help resist Alzheimer’s disease.


In addition, vacations are a primary source of family bonding and are good for marriages. We also know that vacations alleviate job stress and burnout, factors that cause absenteeism to rise – and this absenteeism results in a significant cost and source of disruption to businesses.

But despite this knowledge, Americans fall way behind the rest of the western world in terms of vacation time. The French, for example, have five weeks of holiday plus over 12 public holidays. When they work, their productivity per hour is among the highest in the world, even better than in the U.S., and they have a longer life expectancy.  


In fact, Europeans pay a little over half as much as Americans do for healthcare. What does that tell us? The Germans, too, work less hours than most European countries and take 30 days paid vacation a year – and yet they are Europe’s economic powerhouse. Americans, on the other hand, tend to invest most of their wealth in consumption rather than leisure time.


A recent poll found that 29 percent of Americans take no paid vacation and another 24 percent take a week off or less. In fact, the U.S. is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers any paid vacation time. Interestingly, the leisure gap is a recent development.


In the 1960s Americans and Europeans worked about the same number of hours. Now, more than 30 percent of college-educated male workers in the U.S. are regularly logging 50 or more hours a week at work, up from 22 percent in 1980. Globalization and the Internet have created many new opportunities, but they have also helped intensify competition and generate more work.

So what can we do about it? How we can persuade more Americans to take vacations? Some organizations are taking a lead. The U.S. Travel Association for example, has begun campaigning for Americans to take more vacations for health reasons, following the example of other countries like Australia, whose government three years ago embarked on a long term strategy to remind employees of the personal and professional benefits of taking annual leave, and of taking that leave in Australia.


The No Leave No Life campaign was designed to equip employees and employers with a range of resources and tools to collaboratively tackle annual leave stockpiling, with flow-through benefits to the domestic tourism industry. In an attempt to support the initiative, a television series was created to raise awareness and change people’s attitudes to taking annual leave within Australia. The program has been a huge success, and is now into series three, with nearly a million Australians tuning in each week.

Businesses, too, are trying to persuade their staff to take more vacations. Human Technologies Inc., for example, a company based in South Carolina, offers a $1,000 per person vacation allowance to employees with at least one year of service. In Denver, Bart Lorang, CEO of software provider company FullContact, has gone even further.


He gives his employees a $7,500 bonus to go on vacation, on top of their normal vacation pay. And he insists that employees are not allowed to do any work while on their trip – they must completely go off the technology grid, meaning no e-mail, texting or phone calls. Perhaps Lorang has read a recent McKinsey report that said 40 percent of executives waste a half to a full day a week on communications that are not valuable!


Patagonia Inc., designers and manufacturers of outdoor clothing, put a different spin on encouraging employees to vacation: employees can also support the environmental causes closest to their hearts. Through the company’s internship program, staff can leave their jobs to work for the environmental group of their choice for up to one month, during which time Patagonia pays their salaries and benefits, and environmental groups worldwide get them for free. To date, more than 1,000 employees have taken part in the program.

The medical tourism sector also has a role to play, by providing the types of vacations today’s stressed-out workers really need. Medical tourism was perceived initially as travel strictly for medical intervention, but in recent years the term has been used to encompass both medical and health and wellness tourism, partly because the line between medical treatments and health improvements has become blurred.


Witness the new health spas that are fueling the growth of spas and wellness tourism in general. Health spas offer an approach to physical and personal wellbeing that visitors can take home when the vacation is over, and there is huge growth potential in this sector.


Most of these health spas offer a serious medical lifestyle program with the primary focus on helping people adopt a healthy lifestyle.  The California Health & Longevity Institute is a good example. Located in Westlake Village, northwest of Los Angeles, this wellness facility is a leader in what’s known as science-based lifestyle rejuvenation.


After a certified lifestyle consultant helps the visitor create a personalized health strategy for accomplishing goals, followed by advice from a team of experts — physicians, licensed dieticians, exercise physiologists, fitness trainers, stress management experts, therapists and healthy-living chefs. The institute includes a complete medical clinic with a full range of diagnostic testing and medical assessments.

Such wellness centers are springing up all over the world, many differentiating themselves with unique offerings. Les Sources de Caudalie in France, for example, blends unique vinotherapie treatments designed to slow the aging process with an idyllic locale among vineyards near Bordeaux.


If you don’t fancy a Crushed Cabernet scrub or a Merlot wrap, then perhaps you are interested in sleep diagnostics at the Grand Resort Bad Ragaz in Switzerland. On arrival you will receive a physical exam and medical consultation, including weight and BMI analysis, and, overnight, have your sleep monitored by EEG and recorded on video for analysis of sleep habits and patterns.


At Thailand’s Chiva-Som International Health Resort you can try diagnostic techniques such as iridology, live blood analysis, bio-terrain testing and electro-dermal screening. But if that sounds too intense and you prefer to be at sea eating vegan pizzas, then Caribbean Cruises have a Holistic Holiday at Sea cruise, jam-packed with healthy activities.

What all these health vacations have in common is a primary focus on helping people adopt a long-term healthy lifestyle, and for many visitors, the experience can completely change their lives. As John Belleme one of the founders of the Holistic Holiday at Sea cruise says “many people say our cruise has changed their lives, and many forms of degenerative disease are reversed ……some of our customers tell us that the cruise has saved their life.”

You might think these vacations are attracting a small niche market, but the consumer is changing. Tired of the traditional sun, sea and sand vacation, it is important to understand today’s tourist – a tourist who is looking for a memorable experience rather than a holiday; a tourist who is seeking authenticity, nostalgia, spiritual and mental enlightenment, convenience and spontaneity; all packed and delivered in safe, customized, healthy green wrapping with a very high level of customer service.


If businesses can cater to this new customer – and meanwhile convince them of the advantages of travel, then everyone will benefit. The ‘softer’ side of medical tourism – health and wellness travel – has huge growth potential. So instead of campaigning to get Americans back to work, perhaps we should be prescribing them a vacation!

About the Author

Dr. Simon Hudson is the endowed chair for the Center of Economic Excellence in Tourism and Economic Development at the University of South Carolina. He has held previous academic positions at universities in Canada and England, and has worked as a visiting professor in Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Fiji, New Zealand, the United States and Australia. Prior to working in academia, he spent several years working in the tourism industry in Europe. Dr. Hudson is internationally known and respected as a leading expert in tourism research and development. He has written six books and over 50 research articles, many of them focused on tourism marketing. Dr. Simon Hudson is a professor of tourism at the University of South Carolina, and can be reached (when he is not on vacation) at shudson@hrsm.sc.edu