The UAE’s spa market is booming. Currently growing at a rate of 17.9% a year, its revenues are projected to surge from $1.49 billion last year to $2.26 billion in 2017, with the number of visitors expected to double. The MENA region as a whole, meanwhile, is the second fastest-growing market in the world for spa operations, ranked just behind sub-Saharan Africa.

According to the Global Wellness Institute, which compiled the figures, this growth can be attributed to an “explosion” in luxury day spas, hotel spas and spa resorts, targeting not just international tourists but also the sizeable expat community. Dubai was mentioned as a particular powerhouse for wellness tourism, with a hub of extravagant spa treatments to match its palatial suites and personal chauffeurs.

A glance at the development pipeline confirms the overall trend. By 2019, 139 new spas are expected to open in the GCC, which will increase spa numbers by 27% to a total of 718. While not all of the rumoured openings have been corroborated, it seems clear that operators are eager for a piece of the action.

Of course, while this is good news for the market generally, it also means more competition. With so many new openings on the horizon – not to mention the expected wave of refurbishments and relaunches – operators will need to think carefully about how they can create a niche. 

Daniella Russell, a spa and wellness expert, and spa development and operations director at Soul Spa Concepts, has worked on Middle Eastern projects since 1997. She says that hotels, these days, won’t get far without spa facilities. While this stems in part from the edicts of the luxury market, it also points towards a certain approach to wellness that is prevalent in the Middle East. 

Hyperluxurious treatments

“Nowadays, to obtain a five-star rating, you must have a spa as part of your offering,” she says. “In the Middle East, clients and owners are very considerate towards the world of spa and wellness, and it is part of their routine in life, compared with many other countries that see this only as a treat.”

This means that hyperluxurious treatments, such as the 24-carat-gold radiance facial offered at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi for $515, are only part of the picture. For operators to capitalise on the sector, they will need to develop a more holistic understanding of what visiting a spa means to guests.

“Internationally, as well as regionally, we are seeing a rapid evolution from traditional spas to a much more wellness-focused offering,” Russell says. “Certain spas are introducing genetic testing and blood profiling, creating personalised programmes that suit the findings. Clients are interested in their health, not just from a repair standpoint, but also in terms of preventative measures for their long-term future.”

Paul Hawco, director of Talise Spa operations at Jumeirah, says that spas in the region are no longer just for special occasions.

“Dubai is a very fast-paced environment, almost akin to New York,” he says. “We work hard; it’s demanding and competitive and there’s an element of stress, burnout and a need to disconnect. Spas are about people’s need to take care of themselves. In this high-tech world, people are crying out for a high-touch environment.”

We want to draw in new guests, helping them see Dubai in the same way they see Bali, Thailand or the California desert spas.

Talise, which is Jumeirah’s global signature spa brand, is far removed from a copy-paste concept that can be replicated from one hotel to the next. Rather, each spa retains its own character inspired by the local surroundings, keeping Jumeirah’s promise to ‘stay different’.

“Madinat Jumeirah is an Arabian spa – it specialises in wellness, yoga, meditation, workshops and retreats,” says Hawco. “Emirates Towers, in the city, is an urban spa, so it’s more for a high-end business clientele, and has a shorter, more accessible treatment menu. Jumeirah Beach Hotel is on the ocean and we have beach cabanas and marine treatments, so it has quite a different dynamic.”

Hawco says that of all the Talise spas, Jumeirah Beach Hotel most represents the brand’s ethos. Rather than being solely a spa, Talise is a wellness and lifestyle brand that also incorporates fitness and nutrition, and this property places all three aspects together within a single self-standing destination. This will provide a useful template for future offerings. 

Hotel guests are likely to seek out the full range of health-oriented activities, ranging from nutritious eating options to diving classes and beach football. As a result, the typical hotel spa is edging closer to the old destination spa model.

“A lot of spas in Dubai, which are in hotels, have yoga and tai chi; they have retreats; they have classes; they have cooking. These are things that only used to happen at a destination spa,” says Hawco. “We used to provide a simplistic menu of facials, massages and body treatments, but customers’ demands are evolving and taking it in a different direction.”

The interesting offshoot here is that if hotel spas are becoming more like destination spas, destination spas will need to do even more to differentiate themselves from their upstart rivals. Hawco envisages the emergence of a new, immersive type of product, which goes beyond what destination spa facilities provide now.

According to Russell, there is a shift towards substantial, results-driven treatments. This could mean anything from anti-ageing or body-contouring therapies, which blur the boundaries with medical spas, to services such as mindfulness classes or sleep therapy.

Russell is well positioned to observe the shifting preferences of clients and their guests. Soul Spa Concepts offers tailored designs to hotel chains and private investors. 

“At the moment, we are launching a completely new concept of pop-up spa/fitness/grooming containers,” she says. “Our first client is a hotel chain that is targeting the modern traveller. They want hip but functional spaces, cost-effective and easily adaptable offerings, and fun experiences.”

Cultural considerations

Bespoke offerings, she says, are always best. Because MENA is not an especially mature spa market, there may be a temptation to emulate designs that have worked elsewhere in the world. However, this does not take into account the specific cultural considerations that apply across the Middle East. 

“Perhaps the original design is a mixed facility, which includes changing spaces and wet areas. This is not acceptable in GCC countries, so that means we need a large amount of space to ensure that there is no mixing of genders. If the majority of clients are Arabic, there are certain considerations such as privacy throughout, a regularly updated treatment menu, and professional and knowledgeable team members,” she says.

As a result, spas often need to be large. Take Anantara’s The Palm Dubai Resort & Spa, which expanded its spa last November. Its new Turkish-style hammam features separate facilities for men and women, as well as a dedicated hammam reception for couples.

Credibility is another important consideration. Hawco says that some operators, in their hunger to grab a slice of the wellness market, have allowed their branding to run ahead of their actual offerings. For instance, they might claim to offer a wellness massage, which on analysis turns out to be a normal massage tacked on to a buzzword.

At Jumeirah, he says, the team “doesn’t mess around”. Its yoga comes courtesy of a licensed yoga therapist from India; its tai chi is taught by a warrior monk of the Shaolin Temple. There is certainly a demand for high-tech treatments. For instance, Talise Spa at Madinat Jumeirah recently partnered with the DNA Center for Integrative Medicine & Wellness to offer customised DNA testing and lifestyle medicine packages. However, this is counterbalanced by the desire to get back to basics and offer “authenticity combined with innovation”.

Designated sales staff

For Jumeirah, as for a number of other operators, spas are commanding an increasingly high proportion of overall takings. Hawco believes that the hotel sales teams will have designated wellness-tourism sales staff in as little as 18 months. 

The hotel chain is working with a number of tourism companies in the region to position Dubai as the preeminent choice for health-focused holidaymakers. With wellness tourism around the world growing 9% year on year – 50% faster than overall global tourism – the time seems ripe for plucking.

“We’re excited. It’s a good time for the region and the numbers testify that Dubai is leading the growth in the Middle East,” says Hawco. “I think we’re going to be known not just for shopping and beaches and luxury, which are currently the top three things that tourists come for, but we are also going to be supported by government to develop wellness tourism. We want to draw in new guests, helping them see Dubai in the same way they see Bali, Thailand or the California desert spas.”

While this is a lofty goal, it seems clear the region’s burgeoning spa market is heading in that direction.