Friday, 2 July 2010

Spa's and hot springs: a healthy read?

Seldom can one expect to find anything remotely describing worldwide soaking experiences, other than a number of websites. Let alone a full blown scientific publication.

However Patricia Erfurt-Cooper and Malcolm Cooper (both connected with Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Kyoto, Japan) are most probably the first and are putting down the stakes. Besides initiating soaking as a science, they are drawing on worldwide experiences of soaking, contrasting most current scientific literature on hot springs which never comment on the practices of soaking themselves other than the odd mention of bathing taking place. That said their focus is not solely on hot springs but the overall 'wellness tourism'. And though there are many similarities between soaking in hot springs and taking the waters in spa's, there are also the significant difference of naturalness of the source of water. Especially in Europe and increasingly elders hot springs are offering more 'products' (massage, beauty therapies, etc.) thereby blurring these differences.

Specifically the authors provide us with info on the global spa and wellness industry and it's historic roots, from ancient Pakistan to today. Other chapters look at the cultural and religious significance of water (and thus bathing), the geological background of springs, the tourism environment, economics, management, marketing and technology of wellness tourism, as well as the presentation of case studies.

Summarized the findings of the study are:
  1. Springs are often located in active volcanic environments,
  2. Despite geography hot springs worldwide have religious (and/or traditional) similarities',
  3. Historically, development of hot springs has waxed and waned. This indicates their continuing significance.
  4. Multiple use of hot springs for non-bathing purposes,
  5. Hots springs are often synonymous with curative and therapeutic values. Information on both is lacking,
  6. Especially in Europe springs have been part of the medical tradition,
  7. Differences in hot spring use are often determined by local socio-cultural conditions, as well as factors such as access, temperature and development status of the hot spring and
  8. No culture can claim first use.
It also pinpoints gaps and challenges, some of which concern information supply. Outside of North America and Japan, little information has been compiled (other than this site). Soaking need not be the only use. Increasingly development of hot spring sites include a trend to presenting them as waterparks. Within tourism literature there seems to be lacking researched demand.

In no doubt this book does provide extensive insight and manages to compile a backlog of literature references. That said the simple occurrence that this blog was not part of accessed websites despite the wealth of info, shows that there is still heaps of information to be compiled.

The blurring of the text with upcoming wellness tourism (though economic more significant) does not necessarily make this a must read publication for soakers. Yes, there are highly informative pieces but also less interesting chapters.

Wellness tourism as such derives from cultures where taking the hot waters has always been important.

Specifically the authors miss considerable information on Southeast Asia and manage to lop in Taiwan as well, while listing the Philippines in the Pacific. Indonesia gets a small paragraph despite it probably being one of the best places to find hot springs in the world. Thailand though does get more coverage, even though the places listed fail to attract specific soaking customers; hot springs in Thailand are used by locals for therapeutic reasons while tourists visit out of curiosity.

And though there may be similarities worldwide in soaking, the actual method (and tradition) of soaking is only briefly discussed. Much is made of the risk factor due to contaminating water (due to poor circulation), little of how for instance Japanese maintain absolute hygiene (with Iceland a close second) and the lack of hygienic bathing traditions in many lesser developing nations (for instance Southeast Asia ...). And though significance is given to Roman culture for the spread of ancient bathing traditions and embracing soaking, the role Japan played in developing many of Asia's hot soaks is neglected .

Other aspects which I thought might constitute more research are the fact that many of the bathing traditions stem from countries / regions where bathing in warm or hot water are a treat in colder months. How would this tradition translate itself to Southeast Asia, where most soaks are located in hot climates. Does the water loose it's value therapeutic / medical value when cooled? Is heat part of the therapeutic process?

Another aspect is the fact that it focuses on water as the corner stone of this aspect of wellness tourism. In the absence of hot water, cultures have used hot air (sauna's, steam baths) for much of the same aspects, combining social life with 'health' aspects.
Modern day wellness traditions seem to focus much more on non-social aspects, affording personal exclusivity as another selling point (four, six hands massage).
The presentation of case studies fails to back up the literature. The case study for instance includes two pages on what a hot spring in Australia might develop.

All-in-all despite the promise, slightly disappointing. A wealth of references and a stimulus for improvement nonetheless.

Erfurt-Cooper, P., Cooper, M. (2009) Health and Wellness Tourism: Spas and Hot Springs. Aspects of Tourism 40. Channel View Publications, Bristol, United Kingdom.

Available from Publisher and Amazon.

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