It all really started when Phuket’s first luxury spa, the Banyan Tree Spa, opened in 1995. Seeing how popular this venture was, many island businessmen jumped in. Spas opened in resorts and hotels.
Stand-alone day spas popped up like mushrooms on empty plots of land all over the island. In this month’s Health column, Phuket.Com looks at the growth and increasing maturity of the island’s spa industry.
What’s in a Name?
By 2002, it was pretty much de rigueur for hotels and resorts in Phuket to have “& Spa” tacked onto their names. The word “spa” was attached to all sorts of businesses. There were “hair spas”. There were “nail spas”. Every little massage parlor suddenly became a “spa”.
Much of the demand for spas at that time came from Korean and Taiwanese visitors to the island. Steam rooms and massage are common all over Asia, and the concept was one the Koreans and Taiwanese understood. They poured into the spas by the busload.
European New Popularity
Many European tourists have come to appreciate the delights of Thai spa treatments. Nine out of ten hotels and resorts on the island now have spas. The top ones include the Mandara Spa at JW Marriott Phuket Resort & Spa, the Angsana spas in the Laguna hotels, the Aspara Spa at the Holiday Inn.
All of these have done a good job of raising awareness of the joys of spas among Western tourists.
“I think countries across Asia have similar cultures when it comes to massage, herbal steam rooms and saunas, so it’s not hard to sell spa treatments to Asians,” says Charnporn Hanjanasaya, president of Phuket Spas Association (PSA).
“However, there are some European countries that have no spa culture and are not even familiar with massage. I have to say that we have been lucky that all the resort spas have been introducing these markets to the delights of spas.”
How Many Spas are There?
No one really knows how many spas there are in Phuket, though the number is thought to be around 200. “We had 82 members when we first got together in 2002,” says Khun Charnporn. “But after the tsunami many day spas closed down for good.
“We now have 36 members. The number may seem low, but that is partly because we admit only spas that meet the standards set by the Provincial Public Health Office,” she says, adding that quality rather than quantity is what the association wants in its membership rolls.
That said, few of the top resort spas are members of the PSA. “I guess they don’t see any need to be,” says Khun Charnporn.
Before 2004, Thailand’s spa business was completely unregulated. That changed when the former government decided to promote Thailand as a health tourism destination, and turned its regulatory eye on spas and massage parlors, putting them under the control of the Health Ministry’s Department of Public Health.
Jurai Skulpuak of the Phuket Public Health Office (PPHO) explains that, for a business to open and run as spa, it must first get the green light from the PPHO. Currently, 80 spas and 70 massage places are certified in Phuket.
To stay in business, spas must be inspected once a year. They must demonstrate that there is no sex business within the spa, that therapists have qualifications from recognized institutes, that they adhere to official opening times – 08:00 to 10:00 – and that they follow safety rules for steam rooms, saunas, whirlpool baths and other types of treatment.
“It usually takes up to 70 days to complete the process,” says Khun Jurai. “We inspect only companies that request it. It is the job of the police to keep an eye on places that are nor certified by us, yet advertise themselves as spas,” she adds.
The PSA has been working closely with the PPHO, initially educating health officials as to just what a spa did. The PSA’s main objectives these days are to market the Phuket spa experience to the world, to recruit more reputable spas as members and to educate local people about spas.
“We think it’s important that local people know about and use spas,” says Khun Charnporn, “so that they can point tourists to good spas when asked. Local people’s habits are changing – they are no longer too shy to use spa services.
“More importantly, the tourism business has its ups and downs like any type of business. If local people use spas, that means we don’t have to rely entirely on the tourist market.”
“I believe the spa business in Phuket is still in its early stages,” says the PPHO’s Khun Jurai. “It can go a lot further.” For example, she says, a star rating system similar to hotels might be introduced. Also, she notes, Phuket currently has only day spas. “We don’t yet have destination spas where people stay for a period of time, receiving quality advice and information about food and health as well as a variety of treatments. It could become more holistic.”
The first step has in fact been taken towards this; The Evason Phuket & Six Senses Spa recently organized a five-day programme to help resort guests improve their lifestyle habits, vitality and energy levels. The programme took place in February this year, at a cost of US$990 per person, which included health and wellness workshops, sensory therapies and group wellness activities.