Tourism officials push wellness as niche market

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HONOLULU -- Acupuncture, personal coaching, massage and homeopathic healing are moving closer to Hawaii's tourism mainstream with the formation of the Hawaii Wellness Tourism Association (HWTA).

For most of the state's nearly 7 million yearly visitors, a typical vacation does not conjure up images of a massage in a rain-forest treehouse or a weeklong stay at a yoga retreat. But that could change soon.

The HWTA and a new guidebook to come, called the "Hawaii Wellness Vacation Guidebook," are the tasks of local wellness activist Laura Crites, who received funding from the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau (HVCB).

"The state has told me they will start marketing wellness travel once the product is in place, and they recognize that wellness is more than resorts and spas," said Crites, who runs Aloha Wellness Travel, a Web directory of wellness providers at www.alohawellnesstravel.com.

"There are already all kinds of people practicing wellness here; they just don't practice in the travel industry," she added.

Examples of wellness pro-viders are massage, art and breath therapists; personal coaches; yoga instructors; acupuncturists; and holistic health practitioners.

David Preece, vice president of North America for the HVCB, said the bureau has been working with Crites for a couple of years now to bring this industry into the open.

"Hawaii always has offered its visitors the promise of relaxation, rejuvenation and self-discovery," said Preece. "In recent years, there has been growth in the nontraditional wellness sectors, but it has been difficult to promote because they are all so small and scattered.

"As this collection of organizations of the health and wellness movement becomes more organized, it makes it easier for us to include it in promotional activities."

What Hawaii really needs, said Preece, is an entity like the HWTA to offer visitors the information they need for referrals to wellness providers.

According to one massage therapist on Oahu, who declined to give his name, independent practitioners have had a difficult time marketing to tourists due to competition from hotels. In addition, tourists are seen as one-time customers who are not worth the hassle, and marketing is expensive.

It doesn't make sense for an independent massage therapist to compete with hotels for tourists "because the tourist can just walk down to the fourth floor to the spa and get a massage without calling me," he said. "I don't know anyone who has marketed to the tourism industry, for that exact reason."

Being included in the new wellness vacation guide could change that, he noted.

Crites said the guide should be finished by the end of June, with the first issues to be available at the ASTA congress in Honolulu and the Society of American Travel Writers conference, both in November.

The HVCB also has paid Crites to put together a wellness knowledge bank, with photos and articles on the industry, she said.

Crites said she hopes to get 150 members to join the HWTA in the next six months.

"The association will provide credibility for wellness pro-viders and establish standards for people in the industry," she said. "The people providing services now don't know how to market to the visitor industry. They place ads in the paper and have word-of-mouth advertising, but the association will really help them market better.

"What I've tried to convince [HVCB chief executive] Tony Vericella and others is that wellness is not just another niche market like golf -- it's bigger than that," Crites added.

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