Sub-Saharan Africa is not a region you might readily associate with wellness tourism. Until 2007, there were fewer than 400 modern spas across the entire region, with none at all in 35 of its 49 countries. Although these nations did have rich seams of health-conscious traditions, those practices had not been packaged for international consumers. 

These figures, from the Global Wellness Institute’s (GWI) 2007 report, provide a snapshot of an area 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 health-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 the Seychelles, among others.

As of 2013, spa tourism in the region was still not high. By way 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 wellness travel market in the world.

GWI was about to release its latest report when this issue went to press in October 2016, and it was unclear whether or not this prodigious growth rate had been sustained.

However, it does seem that the region is starting to close in on its true potential for this kind of tourism.

“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 GWI. “This fast growth is driven by numerous factors.”

New money

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 $44.5 billion to Sub-Saharan African GDP in 2014, a figure expected to rise to $75.9 billion 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 the desire and the means to spend on wellness. 

“There is an interest in relaxation, beauty treatments and health, which have grown 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 ‘authentic’. 

“People are increasingly demanding experiences they can’t get ‘just anywhere’, and Africa is perceived as the final frontier for many travellers,” says McGroarty. “Additionally, the continent 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 can’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? To get it right is a matter of knowing your audience: embracing local traditions and indigenous ingredients, but presenting them in a way likely to entice a homegrown clientele.

“The middle class is growing, and there are more African billionaires than ever. 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 they have experienced in New York or Tokyo,” said Sengalese entrepreneur Magatte Wade at the 2015 Global Spa and Wellness Summit.

Africa has a wealth of unique, under-the-radar traditional wellness and healing practices, and ingredients that fascinate the authenticity-craving international traveller.

Wade created the Tiossan beauty line. Her range is centred around black seed oil, which Sufi healers have described as a 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 whirlpool bath 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 baobab oil.

Beyond safari

While stand-alone 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 increasingly less about just bouncing around in a jeep, and more involve hiking, horse-riding, yoga classes, and so on,” 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 waves and spas.”

South Africa’s Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat 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. Norman Carr Walking Safaris in Zambia, meanwhile, are a well-established choice for more 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’ (short-term volunteering projects for international travellers) on the rise, a number of resorts are including an element of community outreach.

“This aspect is especially important to many international travellers to Africa who know about the horribly unhappy colonialist history,” says McGroarty. “For instance, the gorgeous Segera Retreat in Kenya has so many community and wilderness conservation programmes, and hosts a gallery of wonderful Kenyan art.

“Their spa uses local soil and spice scrubs, traditional African medicinal plants, and the experiences if offers include a rock bath with camel’s milk, and an authentically Islamic rasul steam tower.”

Changing perceptions

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 tailored communication strategy.

Safaris are increasingly less about just bouncing around in a jeep, and more involve hiking, horse-riding, yoga classes, and so on.

“To many people in the world, sadly, the only headlines or images of Sub-Saharan Africa are disease, violence, and safari,” she says. “It’s all about changing that 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 cliché.”

In short, wellness tourism is able to 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. Wellness tourism in the region remains something of a niche concern, with nowhere near the permeation we have seen in, say, parts of Asia. McGroarty sees strong grounds for optimism, however, and we shall soon find out if the latest GWI figures bear this out.

“Focusing on what is unique and authentic, and then 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.
The African market has so much potential, the growth is happening already; it just takes some patience and a real plan.”