BERLIN (Reuters) - Massages, steam baths and a rest from an increasingly busy lifestyle are drawing a growing number of Germans to spa breaks, one of the tourism sector's fastest-growing segments.
Tour operators boast above-average growth in spa holiday bookings and see no end to demand as Germans, the world's biggest spenders on holidays, add more short "wellness" trips close to home to their annual vacation schedule.
"After the crisis of 2008/2009 we saw that wellness picked up again," Matthias Hartmann, chief executive of German market researcher GfK told Reuters at the ITB Berlin travel fair, adding bookings for spa breaks were currently up 7 percent.
The German arm of TUI Travel (TUIGn.DE)TT.L, Europe's biggest tour operator, expects more than 5 million Germans to book spa trips this year, spending more than 1 billion euros.
Mostly couples book spa breaks, and the bulk of weekend packages are tailored to twosomes looking to spend quality time together, including side-by-side massages, sparkling wine in oversized bathtubs and candle-lit dinners.
"It's definitely about 'me-time'," Catrin Stoppa, in charge of Thomas Cook Germany's (TCG.L) Wellness & More catalogue, told Reuters.
"Day-to-day life is becoming more and more stressful and fast-paced. And it's also about health, that people say, I can't keep going like this, I need a break."
To lure first-time bookers of spa breaks, tour operators offer relatively inexpensive basic spa packages that may include two nights in a hotel, dinner and a massage.
For those willing to spend a little more, many spa hotels have expanded their offering to include a vast array of ayurvedic treatments, oriental Rasul mud baths, Hawaiian Lomi Lomi massages or tai chi courses.
Lavish spa areas have become a standard feature of winter sports resorts as well as business hotels seeking to keep rooms filled on weekends, and hotels further downmarket are adding basics such as saunas and sun beds to lure customers.
"The market is broadening thanks to attractive packages, and the segment is also becoming more attractive in terms of pricing because it no longer has only 4 and 5 star hotels," GfK's Hartmann said, adding spa breaks were also becoming more popular among families.
Some hotels offer childcare services that give parents enough time off to get a massage or a facial treatment. Even cruise ship operators have caught on to the trend.
"One trend (in the cruise industry) is for more relaxation and less adventure," Michael Ungerer, a manager at Aida Cruises, owned by Carnival Cruises (CCL.N)(CCL.L), told Reuters. Aida says it offers the world's biggest ship-based spa areas.
"That is just because of the demographic and socio-cultural developments. Life is becoming more and more hectic."
Hotels and tour operators are picking up on the population's increasing focus on physical and mental health in a country where burnout is blamed for almost 10 million sick days a year.
Health travel specialist FIT Reisen, for instance, offers packages aimed at preventing burnout, blamed for almost 10 million sick days a year in Europe's biggest economy, including therapy sessions, consultations with doctors and lectures.
TUI cooperates with health insurers in Germany who reward their customers for healthy behaviour by picking up part of the bill for a trip that includes exercise.
"This is still at the very beginning," Mehdi Langanke, in charge of the health travel segment at TUI Deutschland.
"I believe that the awareness that one needs to 'recharge' during holidays and needs to experience strategies with which to cope with day-to-day life is just beginning."
(Editing by Paul Casciato)