UNWTO and ETC endorse health tourism taxonomy


The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the European Travel Commission (ETC) are well aware of the growth of health, wellness and medical tourism in recent years, describing it as ‘an emerging, global, complex and rapidly changing’ segment.

They also state that health tourism is ‘still poorly defined; data on it is fragmented and definitions and concepts of it vary significantly across countries’, which makes it extremely hard for organisations in the sector to benchmark performance at country, destination or facility level.

UNWTO and ETC argue that while health tourism is still a niche market, it is important not to over-inflate or double count statistics by using inconsistent sector definitions (see the 2018 IMTJ article on the magic of medical tourism numbers).

To provide clarity and consistency on definitions for health, wellness and medical tourism, UNWTO and ETC commissioned a study into the sector, which was prepared by Dr László Puczkó (Resources for Leisure Assets) and Dr Melanie Smith (Budapest Metropolitan University), in collaboration with LaingBuisson, publishers of IMTJ.  The resulting report, ‘Exploring Health Tourism’, was published by UNWTO at the end of 2018.

The report is the first attempt by a global tourism association to establish a coherent concept of health tourism and define the motivations behind travellers looking for health-related services.  It gives established and emerging health travel destinations a practical toolkit to help measure, diversify and increase revenue from this sector, and tackle the seasonality of general tourism. 

Exploring Health Tourism’ provides the following definitions for health, wellness and medical tourism, which were formally adopted at the 22nd Session of the UNWTO General Assembly in 2017:

Health tourism

Covers those types of tourism which have as a primary motivation the contribution to physical, mental and/or spiritual health through medical and wellness-based activities. Such activities increase the capacity of individuals to satisfy their own needs and function better as individuals in their environment and society.

Health tourism is an umbrella term for two sector subtypes: wellness tourism and medical tourism.

Wellness tourism

A type of tourism activity which aims to improve and balance all of the main domains of human life including physical, mental, emotional, occupational, intellectual, and spiritual.  The primary motivation for the wellness tourist is to engage in preventive, proactive, lifestyle enhancing activities such as fitness, healthy eating, relaxation, pampering and healing treatments.

Medical tourism

A type of tourism activity which involves the use of evidence-based medical healing resources and services (both invasive and non-invasive). This may include diagnosis, treatment, cure, prevention and rehabilitation.

In addition to providing a consistent taxonomy for the sector, ‘Exploring Health Tourism’ also analyses:

  • the factors shaping health tourism, such as technological developments, personal health, data protection and urbanisation
  • the demand and the supply of health tourism and provides examples of marketing management
  • the future options in the sector for improved data collection, more accurate measurement and for a more accessible and sustainable health tourism market

The report is valuable for national tourist organisations, tourism destinations, companies and institutions who are looking for a better understanding and more accurate picture of health tourism.

Read the report’s Executive Summary and Table of Contents.

Buy the full report from UNWTO for €85.

'Exploring Health Tourism' webinar

This webinar, taking place on 28 February at 14:00, is based on the study by ETC and UNWTO and will shed light on the management and development of health tourism.



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