The Enduring Appeal of Escapism: A History of Wellness Retreats
Trying to get away from the stress of modern life is far from a modern phenomenon
The luxury spa Canyon Ranch turns 40 this year, capping off four decades in which it has grown from a single Tucson facility to an iconic high-end wellness chain.
Canyon Ranch was originally inspired by founder Mel Zuckerman’s epiphany that he didn’t want to simply lose weight—he wanted to adopt a holistic approach to living better. Today, with several locations across the country and even a cruise ship business, Canyon Ranch has become known for its integrative approach to wellness, involving physicians, dietitians, and increasingly specialized therapists. Besides indulging in manicures, massages, and the like, guests can attend seminars on subjects like pain management, life after divorce, and women’s sensuality.
The breadth of Canyon Ranch’s offerings seems to be a sign of the times. Wellness retreats have exploded in popularity in recent years: According to the Global Wellness Institute, wellness tourism was a $639 billion industry in 2017, and experts are predicting that it will hit $919 billion by 2022. Countless getaways around the world cover a broad swath of niches, from beach yoga, body sculpting, and clean eating to reiki, creating vision boards, and recovering from bad breakups.
These trips sit at the cross-section of travel and the now-ubiquitous self-improvement and self-care movements. They typically have a broad focus on holistic healing — even the breakup retreat emphasizes healthy cuisine and individual time to reflect. (They are also, unsurprisingly, primarily aimed at the relatively affluent, who have the time and money to devote to uninterrupted physical and spiritual nourishment.) And they feel perfectly in line with our contemporary cultural obsessions with wellness and quick fixes. What is a retreat, after all, if not a 48-hour life hack?
But the desire to escape from the daily stresses of modern life, it turns out, is far from a modern phenomenon. “As society changes, we tend to become anxious about the impact those changes will have on our bodies, both in terms of appearance and health,” says fitness historian Natalia Petrzela, an associate professor at the…