The calls it "a perfect paradise in waiting for modern day gods and goddesses". In his new role as chairman of World Resorts, filmstar Sanjay Khan is busy putting the finishing touches to his ode to health and fitness, the Golden Palms Spa in Bangalore. Built at a cost of Rs 97 crore in the rugged grandeur of Moorish-Spanish-style casas, the spa nestles in 14 acres of lush coconut palm grove. With a built-up area of 3,00,000 square feet of which 75,000 sq ft is dedicated to the spa, beauty, cosmetic surgery, diagnostic and fitness centres, it claims to be the largest facility of its kind in the world.
Yes, India is witnessing its first brush with the complete mind-body-soul rejuvenation centres or speciality spas. Weve always had the ayurvedic resorts, particularly in Kerala. But the modern-day spas aim to put the fizz back in the frame not just with the massages and treatments but with their saunas, steam rooms, aroma therapies, gyms and what have you. And they cater to any kind of clientele-there are Western holistic treatments to attract the Indian clientele and ayurveda, yoga and meditation to lure the Westerners.
The first to offer such luxury was the palatial Rajvilas hotel in Jaipur. Set amidst 32 acres of orchards and gardens, the 7,000 sq ft spa is housed in a restored, 250-year-old Rajasthani haveli. The speciality here is a combination of ayurveda and aromatherapy treatments which Rajvilas calls "aromaveda".
Then theres Ananda in the Himalayas, which opened its doors in March this year. Set up with an investment of over Rs 45 crore by Indian Hotels and Health Resorts (IHHR), its under a management contract with the Mandarin-Oriental Hotel Group and has a 21,000 sq ft wellness centre with 13 treatment rooms and a 16-station gym.
Also offering you a royal treatment is the Ayoma Palace Spa, at the summer palace of Maharaja Gaj Singh of Jodhpur. Overlooking the Balsamand lake, the spa is the brainchild of San Francisco-based ayurvedic practitioner Reenita Malhotra, and offers a range of spa therapies to detoxify the system, calm the mind, body and soul. Based on the ayurvedic tradition, the remedies here are designed to cleanse the body internally and externally by incorporating herbology, nutrition, topical treatment and pranayama.
Joining the fray are five-star hotels and resorts, like the Leela Palace and Taj Exotica in Goa, the Devigarh Palace near Udaipur and the Sinclair Retreat at Dooars, offering add-on spa facilities. While Leela stresses on ayurvedic rejuvenation, Taj offers treatments like chiropody and reflexology. The Sterling resort at Swamimalai lures with its copper sauna and the royal herbal bath. Mumbai boasts of an 8,500-sq ft day spa in Worli called Equilibrium which has a fitness centre, Exert; a spa cafe, Injest, and a salon, Scissors over Comb.
And this is just the beginning. IHHR has already identified 19 acres of beachfront near Kochi for an ayurveda-oriented spa and land has already been acquired for Ananda on the Beach in Goa, which will be a thalassotherapy spa, one that uses sea products like sea weeds, algae and sea salts in its treatments. Bullish about the concept, Ananda is also planning a day spa in Gurgaon.
What, actually, is a spa? It takes its name from the town near Liege in Belgium to which people travelled for the curative properties of its mineral springs. The founding of Bath in England saw the heyday for these medicinal springs. The origins of the modern-day spas, however, lie in the fat farms. Far from being deprivational asylums where you fight hard against body fat, spas are about pleasure, beauty and wellness, a cure-all for stress, lack of exercise and pollution. The approach is holistic: getting you into a good shape physically, soothing your frayed nerves and easing off your tensions on the massage table. "Its a place to detox, destress and to look inwards," says Ashok Khanna, managing director of IHHR.
On offer is an endless range of activities. Despite the air of quiet and timelessness, its tough to get bored in a spa. "I was like a kid in the candy store, wanting it all," says former Miss India Manpreet Brar of her first spa experience at Ananda. A typical day begins with a yoga and meditation session, followed by water therapies and massages in the afternoons. You could go for the invigorating bending and stretching of a Thai massage or the smooth kneading of the Swedish massage. You could get a scrub of sea salts, or wrap your body in a pack of firming mud and sea weeds. Evenings are reserved for stretch-and-tone exercises, pranayama and head-and-shoulder massage. Simultaneously theres a stress on nutrition and culinary habits. Should you be a confirmed non-vegetarian, a spa is no place for you. No red meat is likely to be served here; the advice, in fact, is to eat vegetarian meals made of organically-grown stuff. The philosophy at Ananda is not to deprive you but to make you eat sensibly, and in moderation. It even offers demonstrations of low-calorie, low-sodium, low-cholesterol spa cuisine in its show kitchen.
In the West, spa buffs are known to go spa-surfing from one resort to the next. In India the right leverage for the growth of spas, it is hoped, will come from the urban Indians increasing awareness about health and fitness. "There has been a growing consciousness of the need to adopt a healthy lifestyle and developing a balanced exercise programme," says Ingo Schweder, managing director of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, South Asia. And as Sanjay Khan puts it: "Health isnt everything, it is the only thing." And with time at a premium for an urbanite, a spa fits in rather well with his idea of packing the holiday with health, beauty and wellness benefits. "It makes the holidays more productive," says Khanna.
For the Indian hospitality industry which has been witnessing a prolonged slump, it implies a new, ambitious phase. "It is a natural evolution and signifies the coming of age of the tourism industry," says Pawan Khanna, managing director of Rainbow Travels. According to travel analyst Rabindra Seth, it also signals the increasing segmentation in the travel industry. "Earlier people used to travel for leisure, for pilgrimage, now they want something new-adventure, eco-friendly or health tourism is catching on," he says. "Resorts are offering such value-added services to beat the competition," adds Major S.K. Yadav of Wanderlust.
But unlike the West, options here are still very limited. And therefore very expensive. Rates for a massage alone can vary from Rs 900-Rs 1,500. A water therapy could set you back by about Rs 700-1,600; body wraps come for Rs 1,500 and facials cost about Rs 2,000. An eight-day, seven-night package at Ananda costs Rs 35,000 for single occupancy and Rs 45,000 for double. At Rajvilas, a Swedish massage, an eye-zone wrap and a dead sea facial is for about Rs 1,500. The serenity package for three days and two nights comes for $535 for single and $630 for double occupancy which includes one spa treatment a day besides the access to gym, jacuzzi, steam and sauna.
One clear target group obviously, is the well-paid, overworked executive. Married to their laptops, perpetually skipping breakfast as well as the gym, sleeping little and too late, hes the perfect candidate for the spa experience. He can afford it as well. "It is for the double income, IT sector guys," says Seth. "Those with a disposable income of more than Rs 6-10 lakh a year," says Khanna. The idea is to rope in corporates who can offer the spa stay as yet another sop for on-the-burn achievers. "Its a place from where you return rejuvenated," says Khan. BBC World has already organised a conference at Ananda, so has GE.
Another target group is the Westerner seeking nirvana in all things Indian. Indian spas might still lack facilities such as mud baths or hotsprings and may be far from providing fresh cell therapies or revitalisation programme using CLP extract (made from cells of foetal sheep), but their USP is meditation, yoga and ayurveda. From the Panchkarma detox treatment to cures for asthma and arthritis, they have it all to lure the foreigner.
But will these expensive spas be a viable proposition in India? Most feel theyll work because of their exclusivity. "For the upwardly mobile, whos done it all, its a new experience and also comes with a snob value," says Seth. "Theres a large niche in the Indian market which is aware of the benefits of a spa and has the necessary spending power. Even though its still a nascent concept, given the interest in health and fitness its bound to succeed," says Schweder. "Over the years havent beauty parlours and gyms sprung up in every street of the metros and small towns?" asks Dr Sanjay Kanzode, the spa physician at Ananda.
However, the average Indian is yet to wake up to a spa experience. For most a vacation is all about "seeing, doing and shopping". No wonder most spa resorts offer weekend getaway packages with the spa thrown in more as an additional benefit, than the integral element. Most resorts include outdoor activities like tennis, golf, mountain-biking, trekking, river rafting or safaris to keep the initiates fruitfully occupied. Compromises are being made about the diet as well. And unlike in the West, the meals are far from spartan. And theres no denial of alcohol either.
No doubt, itll need deep pockets to sustain these resorts in the long run. The minimum breakeven period is pegged at four to five years. Khanna estimates that not more than six such destination spas can survive in the Indian market. However, the competition, he feels should not be limited to the Indian market but to the world market. Thatll determine the truth behind the adage, health is wealth.