Europe’s spas celebrate innovation, desire Israeli visitors

Croatia, a growing health tourism destination, hosts the annual ESPA Congress.

THE HERCULUM SPA’S award-winning herbal sauna.  (photo credit: HERCULUM SPA)
THE HERCULUM SPA’S award-winning herbal sauna.
(photo credit: HERCULUM SPA)
Israel is not a member of the European Spas Association, but when the organization held its 24th annual congress this month, our little country was a topic of interest.
ESPA, the umbrella organization of European health tourism, comprises 21 member countries, which are homes to destination spas and institutes for research and education in the fields of medical and wellness tourism. The congress this year was held at the convention center of Terme Tuhelj, the largest destination spa in Croatia, in a region of the country that is blessed with numerous hot springs.
The annual event brings together representatives of individual spas, as well as regional associations, for sessions dedicated to best practices in the health tourism sector, understanding trends and challenges facing providers of wellness tourism services, and the development of new niche markets through innovation. In many European countries, health resorts and medical services can account for up to 25% of revenue from tourism – big business indeed.
This year, the ESPA Congress invited guests from North America, China, Russia and Israel to share with attendees tips on how spas can attract new visitors from these desirable markets. As an additional aspect of their outreach, ESPA invited a delegation of foreign journalists from these same countries, plus a few more, to cover the congress, as well as to learn firsthand about health and medical tourism in Croatia.
The congress opened with a cavalcade of delegates and guests, each holding the flag of his or her respective country. Israel was represented by Adi Azoulay, CEO of Passport, a leading travel and tourism publisher and portal.
“Israelis are inveterate travelers,” Azoulay told his audience, “and with the proliferation of low-cost airlines now serving Israel, Europe is more accessible than ever.”
Far right, front row, Adi Azoulay from Israel. Front row center, without flags: Mr Thierry Dubois, ESPA president; Ms. Csilla Mezosi, ESPA secretary-general (Photo courtesy ESPA)Far right, front row, Adi Azoulay from Israel. Front row center, without flags: Mr Thierry Dubois, ESPA president; Ms. Csilla Mezosi, ESPA secretary-general (Photo courtesy ESPA)
According to Azoulay, Israelis have already discovered the spas of Bulgaria, Slovakia and Slovenia, and their appetite has been whetted. “Offer a good product at an attractive price, and Israelis will be eager to come,” Azoulay assured ESPA attendees.
Following his appearance on a panel with colleagues representing other non-EU markets, Azoulay related to The Jerusalem Post, “I was inundated with questions and business cards from many parties interested in penetrating the Israeli market.”
Israelis who do travel to experience European spas will discover a world with centuries – even millennia – of tradition, and plenty of science behind the relaxing waters and treatments. In fact, there is an association of Roman Thermal Spas with members from nine different countries spanning the continent, from Portugal and France in Western Europe to Greece and the Balkans in Eastern Europe. Apparently, the Romans built a network of baths in their empire centered around thermal waters (aka hot springs), where soldiers were encouraged to rest and recuperate.
(Interestingly, Israel also has one such site with recorded history dating back to Roman times, complete with ruins: Hamat Gader, in the southern Golan Heights. There are other sources of thermal waters in the country, from Tiberias in the north to the Dead Sea in the south, and a few along the coast – yet not one of them has inspired the development of European-style, full-service destination spas, complete with a hotel and a staff of healthcare professionals, with the possible exception of the Dead Sea, although it’s more its geography as the lowest point on Earth and the therapeutic qualities of the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation for the treatment of psoriasis than the mineral waters that have been the driving force behind its health tourism reputation.)
The spas of Europe provide their guests with several different levels of treatment and care, falling in the categories of wellness, health and medical. Wellness is appropriate for everyone, even people who are healthy and suffering from no particular complaint: the aim is to provide a sense of overall well-being, through the balancing of the physical, mental and spiritual.
Health is the intermediate category, for people with particular complaints or conditions, whether physical, such as localized pain, or psychosomatic – for example, clients needing to reduce stress. Guests in this category generally seek out spas specializing in targeted therapies. And while they may have embarked on a course of treatment upon the recommendation of a healthcare practitioner, they are not, strictly speaking, “under doctor’s orders.”
Medical, meanwhile, is precisely that. A patient is under the care and supervision of a physician, who prescribes an exact course of treatment following a specific protocol. For example, near the spa that hosted the ESPA Congress is an orthopedic rehabilitation and recuperation facility that incorporates thermal water treatment as part of a patient’s recovery after surgery or the trauma of an accident. American history buffs may be aware that president Franklin Roosevelt established a clinic for polio sufferers in Warm Springs, Georgia, after he himself experienced relief from bathing in the hot springs.
Spas have an array of natural treatments that they employ. The most common is balneotherapy – bathing therapy – most frequently in thermal waters, which besides the soothing effects of warmth are usually also rich in beneficial minerals. Often an adjunct to this is peloid therapy, which uses mineral-rich mud, which is packed on ailing joints or applied to inflamed skin. (Dead Sea mud, for example, is familiar to most Israelis.)
Hotel Well, Terme Tuhelj Spa, host of the 2019 ESPA congress. The congress was organized in conjunction with the Croatian Chamber of Economy, and in partnership with the Croatian National Tourism Board (Photo courtesy Terme Tuhelj)Hotel Well, Terme Tuhelj Spa, host of the 2019 ESPA congress. The congress was organized in conjunction with the Croatian Chamber of Economy, and in partnership with the Croatian National Tourism Board (Photo courtesy Terme Tuhelj)
A related but different realm is thalassotherapy, deriving from the Greek word for sea. Spas in coastal areas draw on the ocean for the concentrations of minerals dissolved in its waters.
Representatives of spas specializing in all these areas gathered at the ESPA Congress, both to hear presentations from colleagues on new research and methods, as well as to meet with vendors in the industry, such as developers and suppliers of water filtration systems. Finally, a highlight of the congress is the annual presentation of Innovation Awards, in recognition of excellence shown by health tourism providers.
Awards were won by spas in eight categories this year, beginning with the Innovative Spa and Health Resort Destination Award going to Albena - European Sport Resort 2019, located in a nature reserve on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria. Other honorees were Hotel Premier Aqua - Aqua Medical Center in Serbia, Innovative Medical Spa; Spirit Hotel, Sarvar, Hungary, Innovative Hotel Spa; Herculum Spa and Afrodita Resort, Romania, Innovative Spa Concept; the NLFI Spa and Medical Center, Heilsustofnun, Iceland, Innovative Spa Program; Thermelove Sulphur Spa Cosmetics, Czech Republic, Innovative Spa Product; International Institute of Technology, Deggendorf, Germany, Spa Education Program; and Dr. Antonella Fioravanti, of Siena University, Italy, Innovative Spa Research and Education.
Journalists hosted by Croatia during the congress were also introduced to a number of world-class clinics that are adding to the country’s reputation as a health and medical tourism destination. Perhaps most impressive was Zagreb’s Svjetlost Clinic of Ophthalmology, which is a European pioneer in innovative eye surgeries, as well as a facility that conducts clinical trials of new procedures. A recent feather in its cap was its treatment of US President Donal;d Trump’s ex-wife Ivana Trump, who chose Svjetlost for its groundbreaking implantation of multifocal lenses. “Ms. Trump can afford to go anywhere in the world,” the CEO pointed out, “and she came to us.”
According to Israeli resident Irena Rapoport, regional director of Health Tourism Industry, “In addition to the affordability of its healthcare, Croatia has another distinct advantage: it is a beautiful country, with a lovely riviera on the Adriatic, and amazing cities like Dubrovnik (where Game of Thrones was filmed), so tourists are able to combine a relaxing vacation with their medical or dental treatments.”
The Croatian capital of Zagreb has become a popular tourist destination in its own right. The city of 800,000 more than doubles in size during the summer. This popularity is what prompted a leading international hotel chain to pick Zagreb as the location for the Continental European launch of its newest brand – the hip, stylish Canopy by Hilton.
As we walked around the city on a guided tour, we came across a prominent plaque in Hebrew and Croatian: “On this site stood the central synagogue of the holy community of Zagreb, constructed in 1867, and destroyed by the Fascists during the Holocaust in 1941.” The Fascists were Croatia’s own notorious Ustasa, who rivaled the Nazis when it came to antisemitic persecution. Zagreb’s Jews were murdered in Jasenovac, a Croatian concentration camp that obviated the need for deportation to Nazi death camps.
Memorial plaque commemorating Zagreb's central synagogue (Photo credit: Buzzy Gordon)Memorial plaque commemorating Zagreb's central synagogue (Photo credit: Buzzy Gordon)
The plaque made me curious about the present-day Jewish community in Zagreb, which, according to our guide, is Ashkenazi, while the communities of Split and Dubrovnik are Sephardi. The Zagreb synagogue is on the third floor of an ordinary apartment building, with only a small security booth on the sidewalk giving any indication of what may be within. On Shabbat morning, no one in the booth paid any attention to me as I entered and climbed the stairs. Indoors, however, I was challenged by an Israeli who told me I could not attend services without making prior arrangements.
Even though I spoke Hebrew, showed him my Israeli passport, and was clearly unarmed and not dangerous, he would not be dissuaded. Future visitors be forewarned.

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