THE WELLNESS INDUSTRY globally is booming. As evidence mounts surrounding the different ways in which lifestyle affects health, more people are looking at diet, exercise and stress reduction to maintain their physical and mental health, and their quality of life. Where there is a trend, there is usually a market opportunity, and the industry association Global Wellness Institute (GWI) has estimated wellness to be worth 5% of global economic output. The industry includes everything from spas and healthy eating to gyms, but one of the fastest growing areas is wellness tourism. The wellness tourism market was worth USD639bil in 2018, according to GWI.
Medical tourism is well understood in Malaysia; it denotes travel to receive treatment for a disease or condition. The major private hospitals in Penang market themselves overseas, supported by dedicated resources within the state tourism departments.
Enjoying the rainforest at The Habitat Penang Hill.
Wellness tourism, however, focuses on promoting health and well-being through physical, psychological, or spiritual activities. Yoga and meditation retreats have existed for decades, but the wellness tourists of today look for a more holistic experience, with nutrition, stress reduction and mental health complementing physical activity. Globally, growth has boomed at the high-end, with wellness summits, spirituality retreats, and resorts that focus on health and self-care charging up to USD5,000 for a weekend.
This opportunity has been noticed in Malaysia. In June 2019 the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA) signed an agreement with the Association of Malaysian Spas to boost wellness tourism. MATTA president Tan Kok Liang points out that with Malaysia’s tropical forests and beautiful beaches, it could unleash the opportunity already capitalised on by Bali and Thailand. And locally, The Penang Tourism Master Plan, unveiled in February includes building a “Wellness and Aesthetics Resort Enclave”.
Meanwhile, the entrepreneurs of Penang are busy looking at what our island has to offer and trying to package it in a way that would attract wellness tourists. Allen Tan, managing director of The Habitat Penang Hill, clearly sees an opportunity. Located on the fringes of the 130-million-year-old virgin rainforest on Penang Hill, The Habitat is an eco-tourism facility dedicated to conservation and the promotion of its unique biodiversity. He highlights the growing trend of “Forest Bathing”, techniques and treatments for improving mental and physical health in a natural outdoor environment as being a fit for The Habitat. He has already hosted a “nature camp”, in partnership with Entopia and the Tropical Spice Garden, for a group from Xiamen, which was a great success.
Chakra Yoga instructor Sarah-Joy Amin of Transform with Sarah-Joy hosted her second health and wellness retreat on Penang Hill in January of this year. She wanted a location where she could offer a positive environment for wellness, with sunshine, good air quality, a natural environment, and healthy food; and found Hickory on Penang Hill, a bed and breakfast with 15 rooms in a recently renovated colonial-era bungalow, following an extensive three-month search of options in Batu Ferringhi, George Town and Balik Pulau. “It is easier to plan the teaching at a retreat than to find a venue,” she explains, “Hickory was the only venue that accommodated our request for vegetarian food.” Her retreats combine yoga, mindfulness, walking meditation, qi gong, relaxation and self-awareness. She would like to see more hotels offering affordably-priced rooms, practice space and healthy vegetarian food.
The view from Hillside Retreat.
Ken Yeoh, director of the Hillside Retreat, another recently renovated bungalow on Penang Hill, explains that his vision is to offer regular Penangites a chance to get away and enjoy nature on Penang Hill, just as he did when he was a kid. So in addition to four hotel rooms with en-suite bathrooms in the bungalow itself, he has converted the former servants’ quarters into four basic rooms with bunk beds, and has 14 tents that can be erected in the garden, with access to an outside kitchen and shower block. He opened in the beginning of 2020, and is focusing his marketing on Penangites looking for a get-away, but is already being approached by groups who want to organise retreats.
One of these is Gwen Tan-Wynne, an instructor of Muddy Lotus Yoga. She is holding her first retreat in Penang, Reset in Nature, this April, having previously run them in Chiang Mai, Koh Samui and Bali. Her bi-annual retreats offer functional yoga, mindfulness and adventure. Tan-Wynne is bringing her expertise back to Penang, after having spent 30 years away working in the luxury hospitality industry; but finds it difficult to secure the right venue. To ensure the right level of service, she is also bringing in a functional nutritionist from Singapore, and organising outside caterers and other staff as she finds service delivery to be a perennial problem in Malaysia. “The ‘it’s OK-lah’ mindset has to change,” she says. “When you look at value for money, Bali is so much better because the service is incomparable.” This sentiment is echoed by Iyengar Yoga practitioner Sunalini, who organises her bi-annual Sunalini Yoga retreats at Tiger Rock on Pangkor Island in Perak. “No place in Penang can offer the same quality of service and food at the price that Tiger Rock does,” she says.
The state’s planned “Wellness and Aesthetics Resort Enclave” is a recognition that there is an opportunity for wellness tourism in Penang.
In Langkawi Amran Ahmed and his brother have seen and seized the potential. As kids, they grew up splitting their time between Penang Hill and Langkawi, and have now built the Ambong-Ambong Rainforest Retreat, a boutique hotel which offers yoga classes, wellness & yoga retreats, and healthy Japanese dining. “We saw the demand for actually being in the rainforest, rather than being in a hotel where the rainforest has been flattened and replaced by landscaped gardens,” he explains. Ambong-Ambong started by offering basic villas, mainly via Airbnb, but has pushed upwards by constructing high-end luxury pool villas, which, he notes, are also more profitable. Guests come from all over the world. So why not create something similar in Penang? It is more complicated, he believes, because “wellness” needs to be offered as a package, an “experience”. But in principle, it should work – Penang Hill has nature, its history as a hill station, which if you think about it, was basically a colonial wellness retreat.
Nardya Wray, owner of city-centre hotel Campbell House, agrees that Penang businesses and tourism bodies could do more to attract wellness tourists by working together to offer experiences that combine yoga, tai chi, local dancing and heritage arts like silat. “We already have a culture of food,” she says, “but combining it with the wonderful nature and heritage the city and country have to offer could lead to many opportunities we are not promoting yet.” For the last four years, Campbell House has hosted groups of vegan visitors, organised by a company called VegVoyages. It runs tours that aim to show the true heart of the country and give their tour-goers an understanding of its people, culture, history and food. The tour to Malaysia includes local culture and language lessons, village visits, snorkeling trips, boat journeys and jungle treks, and ends in Penang with historical heritage walks, tai chi lessons on the Campbell House terrace, and cooking classes. “These tourists stay at Campbell House because we really understand the ethos of the tour and can cater to specific needs of their guests, especially when it comes to the Vegan experience,” she thinks. “We prepare special breakfast menus, a vegan dinner and we ensure the rooms are vegan-friendly.”
Vegan breakfast at Campbell House.
The Habitat’s Allen Tan highlights the struggle faced when trying to attract high-end wellness tourists to Penang due to its current positioning as a budget destination with cheap food for tour buses and cruise passengers. The initiative to gain a UNESCO listing of Penang’s rainforest as a Biosphere reserve, spearheaded by Penang Hill Corporation and supported by The Habitat, will help raise awareness, he hopes. “In the past, Penang Hill was all about wellness; let’s bring it back there!” Nardya Wray agrees that the continued health of Penang’s natural heritage is essential, but adds that there are cultural practices that should be preserved or even incentivised. “When I was growing up, I remember my mum going to local Malay massages and using local herbs for ailments, things you hardly see anymore. Penang has a melting pot of cultures, Malay, Chinese and Indian, with their own traditional remedies and exercises. I think this is forgotten when promoting Penang.”
The state’s planned “Wellness and Aesthetics Resort Enclave” is a recognition that there is an opportunity for wellness tourism in Penang. Businesses would like to see recognition and support for what they are doing now in wellness, and protection of the natural and cultural heritage that could make Penang an attractive destination. Tan believes state exco for Tourism Development, Arts, Culture and Heritage Yeoh Soon Hin is listening, and he and the other wellness tourism entrepreneurs of Penang are looking forward to working with the state government to make the most of the exciting opportunities available.
Louise Goss-Custard is editor of the Penang Free Sheet (www.penangfreesheet.my), co-organiser of Open Studios Penang, and a keen flautist who plays with Penang’s best Irish band, the DramBand (www.facebook. com/DramBandPenang) and several local orchestras.