Art, Articles, Health and Wellness, Massage, Musings, Philosophy, Rambliings, Spa, Spa Evidence, Uncategorized

What Does It Mean To Be An American Spa?

The tourism industry is the largest industry in the world. It provides infrastructure for nations, tax revenues to governments and assists economic growth across several sectors of the global economy. Tourism employs 8.9 percent of the global workforce and accounts for 11.2 percent of world GDP. Many different trends are conspiring to increase the flow of tourism around the globe. Longer life spans, more flexible working hours, early retirement and increases in the standards of living for much of the developing world is ensuring tourism survival and continued presence well into the 21st century. But what about Spas and Spa Tourism here in America?

When people travel, they typically are looking for combinations of scenic beauty, pleasant attitudes from the locals, suitable accommodations, rest and relaxation, affordable air fares and historical and cultural interests. Service providers are always seeking new ways to meet and exceed the needs of so many diverse people in search of new experiences and Spa Tourism is front and center in their arsenal of tools. International Spa destinations are very competitive and service quality is high on the list of priorities for the savvy traveler. The increased number of tourists in recent decades has raised red flags about issues as vast and varied as environment, physical resources and sociocultural degradation. These issues have given rise to the concept of sustainable tourism, which in turn has become a buzz word and phenomena in recent years as Spas have attempted to become more focused on good sustainability practices, thru the auspices of groups like The Green Spa Network. But too often, these ideas are reduced to only matters of environmental impact in the States as befits a consumer culture while they are culturally aimed at Spas in the developing world who are new to capitalism rather than at Americans who may or may not disagree about the relevance of environmental issues at home. Also, how America is viewed around the globe plays into this discourse both positively and negatively and this pattern is sometimes misconstrued as a logical fallacy that the developing world is protectionist in the extreme both economically and culturally. This facilitates reactionary politics for Americans to sort thru and global spa industry fragmentation along political lines.

The concept of sustainability is bound up with the notion that culture is a fixed resource. It is quite common to see such lists begin with the maxim Minimize Impact. But what does this mean for American Spas which sell experiences that derive some of their underlying principles from global cultures or other domestic minority groups? Just what kind of cultural experience do Americans sell to visitors from around the globe when they visit American Spas and how do we minimize any negative impact on American culture while doing so? Are these separate things or should they be linked? I tend to think they shouldn’t be linked professionally but if they are for some in the Spa world on a private level, are we to sell Democracy and Capitalism? And what of Western religious notions, Environmentalism, Western aesthetics rather than esthetics or Western science? According to Spafinder, we should be selling Spa Evidence or Western scientific reasearch at the very least if not outright science itself. To suggest that we sell or should sell Western science may offend some Western Spa therapists who subscribe to a notion common in alternative and allied health that reductionism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and who see a division happening in the Spa community regarding a movement away from healing retreats, focusing instead on modern pursuits and integration while others may feel that this is our best product. To put it another way, as Sara Firman of Vision Spa Retreat says, “Why are people paying  (often very high prices) to have experiences that were never intended to be commodities? In common language, these experiences are ‘inalienable’ meaning  that they derive from a social consensus that certain things and behaviors are so precious and basic to human identity that they are degraded if they can be  freely bought and sold in the marketplace.”  I agree with Sara in principle but I think there are examples we can look at for some idea of how to navigate the world of selling spa experiences as commodities. Perhaps all that is needed is a new approach to Western rituals. Geisha in Japan after the second World War were and are ‘people of the arts’ and they are also performers who sell traditional Japanese arts to an elite public. While there is a seedy side to the Geisha world historically, and Geisha who work in Hot Springs Spas are considered not much better than a prostitute by Japanese society even in the modern age, the metamorphosis that Japan’s Geisha culture underwent after the end of the Second World War may provide some pointers on cultural reinvention for those of us who are looking to engage with both capitalism and the liberal Western arts thru Spa.

Kimberly J. Lau has written a book titled New Age Capitalism: Making Money East of Eden and I recommend it highly.  I purchased a copy about seven years ago and later gave it away but recently decided to repurchase it for reference. The book does get into issues with science and Spa by focusing on microbiotic eating practices among other items and she does offer limited critiques of capitalism in an era of sustainability. What I found to be most enlightening were some of the areas she didn’t fully flesh out. I would have liked to see more on energy therapies and their philosophies as cultural products as well as more on approaches to American methods of promoting a uniquely American or Western Spa culture, rather than having capitalism be so monolithic that it dwarfs all other American contributions to the subject. But New Age Capitalism was one of the few books I have encountered about Spas and Spa culture that wasn’t just a rehash of already existing information. By bringing up the implications of aggressive capitalism thru Spa culture, Lau opened a door to a new discourse for many involved in Spa and I am surprised her work is not more widely known and so I am promoting it here, if for no other reason that I would like to have discussions with other Spa therapists about some of Lau’s premises and conclusions. Lau also had the misfortune to publish her book only a few years after September 11th 2001, and I think that American concern with global perceptions of America and Americans was at an all time low.

Another criticism of how Spa Industry aesthetics are declining came thru the 2011 Global Spa Summit and a comment from Dr. László Puczkó, who presented a paper on Health and Wellness Tourism. Dr. Puczko states in an article for the International Medical Travel Journal that the word Spa has become so stretched and disjointed from its foundations that it is almost meaningless. I tend to agree that by including every small day spa that wants to call itself a spa because it has a closet in the back set aside for massage, we are doing our industry a severe disservice and eroding important differences between various brands and types of Spa. This is not sustainable best business practices for American Spa culture and I for one am aware of friction between cosmetologists who work in esthetics and the liberal arts and humanities that work in aesthetics. I don’t think that esthetics should be lumped in with cosmetology and I believe it should stand apart. But as a Spa technician and massage therapist, I also believe we need to focus not only on how we are growing aesthetically as a uniquely American industry but how we are developing our business brand globally as American Spas and this does involve dealing with the legacy of The West and it’s relations with the rest of the world.

I think there is a need for further development or a shift in emphasis in how the Spa Industry approaches Spa tourism and sustainability in America and in how we define our brand globally. For instance, my home State of Alabama introduced The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail about 13 years ago and new hotels and Resorts have sprung up almost overnight. Before their advent, I had to move to a neighboring State to find work in a Resort and Destination Spa as there were none in Alabama. How Tourism impacts the heartland of America and how this involves the growth of the Spa Industry as a global brand deserves more attention than it is getting to my mind. The Global Spa Summit’s paper on Health and Wellness Tourism is a great place to start and an interesting read if you’re up for it but I want to close with this snippet of an article from massage “The origins and true definition of spa recognize and include an important cultural dimension and a social institution that provide for a place and time for not only healthcare services and therapeutic treatments, but also cultural activities, shared events, societal leisure, relaxation and renewal. All of these features in combination eventually spawned the emergence of the contemporary spa industry with its related professions and culture. Looking at spa from this larger social and cultural context necessitates us to gaze further back and deeper into the fundamental dimensions and dynamics of spa. What emerges is nature’s “blood of life,” the primal element, water. Wherever and whenever the word spa is used, it is necessary to experience, touch, be touched and take the waters in all their forms and forces. In short, spas are times, places and processes for drinking, washing, showering, bathing, soaking, floating and flowing within, upon, under and through the waters.” I don’t think anyone wants to abandon this central core of Spa but in order to innovate, we must reimagine how best to bring this experience to the masses both domestically and internationally.  I would also be interested in hearing your thoughts on this topic if you’d be kind enough to share them so please comment and let me know what you think.


Exploring the Hospitality Industry by John R and Josielyn T. Walker 2007–and-Evolution

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