Wellness Travel

Promoting an underutilized draw to New Orleans



Illustration by Paddy Mills

Jennifer Gibson Schecter was once a tourist in New Orleans herself and is now proud to call NOLA home.

A vacation in New Orleans is hardly synonymous with healthy travel. Our award-winning restaurants are not acclaimed for their petite calorie counts, and our mixologists make more than mocktails. But within our culture that celebrates living life to its fullest, wellness tourism combines the exploration of new places with a focus on acheiving longevity, and our region can harness this travel trend.

Travel overall may be on the upswing. Despite current and emerging COVID-19 virus variants, travel industry experts are anticipating surges in travel for 2022 that correspond to increased vaccination rates. A recent report by the World Travel & Tourism Council found that in 2022, the U.S. travel sector is anticipated to grow by 28.4% and travel will generate nearly $2 trillion for the U.S. economy this year.

Expedia’s 2022 Travel Trends Report found that more than 36% of U.S. travelers are searching for a sense of contentment and mental well-being during their next trip, and they plan to put away their screens – 24% of them said they intend to be more present and spend less time on electronic devices during travel.

The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) has been tracking wellness travel for years, and it predicts that wellness tourism will be a major travel trend in 2022. GWI defines wellness tourism as “travel associated with the pursuit of maintaining or enhancing one’s personal well-being.”

In its Dec. 2021 report, “The Global Wellness Economy: Looking Beyond COVID,” GWI charts the rise of wellness travel from 2017-2019, which culminated in $720.4 billion globally spent on wellness travel in 2019. COVID-19 travel restrictions reduced that amount to $435.7 billion in 2020. However, GWI is projecting a 21% annual growth rate for wellness tourism through 2025, reflecting new traveler values that include a quest for nature, sustainability and mental wellness, as well as a period of rapid recovery from pent-up demand in 2021 and 2022.

GWI identifies two different types of wellness trips, and the Greater New Orleans area is equipped to offer both. The first, primary wellness, includes travel where the trip itself, the destination and the activities are primarily motivated by wellness. Secondary wellness travel refers to trips where wellness affects some choices and activities because the traveler would like to maintain good health and/or their wellness lifestyle during the trip.

Primary wellness options in our region are not as rare as one might think. A quick Google search results in several yoga and meditation retreats scheduled for early this year, as well as spas in some of our famed hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton and Hotel Monteleone. People who find nature restorative can choose from numerous camping options an easy drive from the New Orleans Louis Armstrong International Airport, including Bayou Segnette State Park and Fountainebleau State Park.

For secondary wellness, the options are much broader. Continuing personal wellness practices during vacation can tie to almost any healthy habit. There are more than 40 yoga and Pilates studios in our metro region, not to mention gyms that offer day rates and hotel gym facilities. Audubon Park, City Park and Lafreniere Park are all easily accessible for running and walking, and Bayou St. John and Lake Pontchartrain offer a number of water activities as well.

When tourists dine out, one of the most useful tools developed for our region is Ochsner’s Eat Fit NOLA. More than 125 local restaurants, including our most lauded establishments, partner with the healthy eating program that coordinates with chefs to develop menu items that meet healthy eating standards, including measuring for calories, sugar and sodium content. Some of our favorite Cajun and Creole dishes actually can be made with a recipe that doesn’t come served with a side of remorse.

It isn’t a far stretch to market these amenities to wellness travelers and entice them to take a chance on the Big Easy. They are a desirable group to target. GWI reports that wellness trips accounted for only 6.5% of all tourism trips but represented 16.2% of all expenditures in 2020. They say this is because wellness travelers tend to spend much more per trip than the average traveler.

And importantly, wellness tourism needn’t rely on Mardi Gras or any specific festival. It can happen year-round and at scales that might fare better during potential pandemic cancellations.