One can trace back human affinity for wellness thousands of years, from the Egyptians to philosophers like Epictetus and Aristotle, and even further back to the Buddha. The Oxford Dictionary calls wellness “the state of being in good health, especially as an actively pursued goal.” It defines wellbeing as “the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.”

In modern times, the two have been melded together. The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) combines them, defining wellness today as the “active pursuit of activities, choices, and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health.”

And while wellness isn’t a new movement, perhaps the boom in its visibility is due to more people existing in overcrowded cities, working harder and longer hours to meet rising living costs, needing wellness, and realizing they have to get away to find it. Insert: wellness tourism.

In 2013, GWI reported the wellness tourism market to be worth $439 billion, representing 1 in every 7 tourism-related dollars, and projected the market to be worth $678.5 billion by 2017. The organization combined the definitions of wellness and tourism to bring some focus to the movement, calling it “travel associated with the pursuit of maintaining or enhancing one’s personal wellbeing.”

WHY TAHOE IS AN EMERGING HUB

It’s possible that health has always been sought after in Tahoe. Some believe that the Lake Tahoe Basin is even a “vortex,” something defined in the spiritual community as a natural intersection of electromagnetic energy emitted from the Earth, which feels attractive to the human body, as if being drawn there (see Kira Catanzaro’s 2012 Vortex Energy in Moonshine).

CONNECTED: Many in the wellness industry say people are “dying for connection” despite the increased connectedness portrayed by social media. Shown here are a group of yogis in a partner stretch using each other’s stability to take the pose deeper. Photo by Holly Shankland

Whether it’s a vortex drawing wellness communities here or something else, tourism experts do know for certain that 10 years ago, with the first Wanderlust yoga festival at Squaw Valley, interest in the wellness movement in Tahoe spiked.

“Wanderlust came to us 10 years ago [as its] first location. Look at how that festival’s grown: they’ve taken a yoga festival and really multiplied it,” said North Lake Tahoe Resort Association Communication Director Liz Bowling. “There’s sound bath offerings, key note speakers … all different types of things. We’ve seen over this decade not only Wanderlust being a marquee event for us but really that it’s influencing travel decisions because people want to get away and they want to rejuvenate and connect.”

The NLTRA’s 2018 Annual Report showed visitor spending from tourism at $647 million last year. The group’s yearly goals for 2018 were to increase shoulder season and midweek visitation, ensure environmental stewardship and tourism sustainability, connect visitors to local businesses, and advocate for the local business economy.

Among these efforts, the communications team initiated over 1,200 social media posts resulting in 760.5 million impressions. There were 650,000 online visits to gotahoenorth.com alone, and 1.08 million engagements on social media channels operated by the NLTRA.

“As a destination marketing organization, part of what we build and advertise as the North Lake Tahoe experience is that we’re rooted in connection and rejuvenation,” Bowling said. “We highlight ways to detox digitally because it’s a mindset. It’s not just wellness tourism or wellness as a brand pillar for North Lake Tahoe, but what we’ve really seen is it’s become a mindset. When people are traveling, they’re looking to get away and really connect with people.”

ADVENTURES IN ‘WONDERLUST’: Revelers at the Thievery Corporation show. Photo by Wade Snider/Moonshine Ink

As a vacation destination, the Basin attracts people because they’ve become more mindful about how they’re spending their time. With just 20 vacation days a year, said Bowling, people are more critical about finding a wellness vacation experience that can do it all.

“Whatever that means, whether it’s rooted in connection … whether you need to just not have cell phone service … by coming here to North Lake Tahoe, they’re able to do that because there’s so much diversity in the type of trip you can plan here,” she said.

In 2014, the Stanford Prevention Research Center launched a wellness study, which targeted 10 areas of wellness that people mentioned in interviews: social connectedness, lifestyle behaviors, stress and resilience, emotional health, physical health, meaning and purpose, sense of self, finances, spirituality or religiosity, and exploration and creativity.

Interestingly, many of these factors are readily available in Tahoe, and Bowling says that it’s the people who reside here for that specific purpose who have the farthest reach in appealing to travelers.

“You have people who purposely choose to live here that want to spread that wellness mindset, and because of their entrepreneurial spirit, they’re talking about how they’re bringing wellness into their own lives,” Bowling said. “Because these people are rooted in our community, their reach is far beyond and more authentic than a print ad about me telling you why North Lake Tahoe appeals to a wellness travel. I think people are finding us because of these people in our community that are putting us on a map.”

BUSINESS IN THE INDUSTRY

Wanderlust’s namesake studio at Squaw Valley emerged in the years following the first festival. Studio manager Michelle Krieg has been in the business a long time, having previously owned a studio in the Bay Area.

“I think ultimately people are looking for a space for calm in their life. People are ultimately coming to yoga because of a sense that there’s something more. They’re looking for something to bring wellness into their life, to balance their life,” Krieg said.

She suggests that folks flock here because Tahoe is a healing place, and that it’s intrinsically linked to Wanderlust’s image of wellness.

“The Wanderlust brand as a whole is definitely about movement, breath, community, sustainability, and finding your true north, which is that guiding light within you,” she said. “Getting outside in the fresh air and nature where you can ground your feet and search inward — that place of balance and intuition — with that, comes wellness.”

Meg McCracken, also of Wanderlust, has been teaching yoga for 18 years and lived in Tahoe for six, plus a stint 15 years ago. Asked about yoga’s following, she said that Tahoe is a natural fit for the movement.

“Tahoe has this really beautiful nature component to it with the lake and the mountains [and the draw is] how we use nature to inspire and illicit wellness and wholeness,” she said.

About 10 years ago, yoga postures became the “cool thing to do” McCracken said. But now, more people are responding to all aspects of yoga.

“People are coming more for the full perspective of yoga which includes meditation, breath work, and lifestyle and wellness alignment,” she said. “The nature of our world is speeding up and changing, and anxiety and depression are coming to the forefront. I really aspire to make the full practice of yoga, this wellness practice, available to everyone. As we start to grow as teachers, we’re welcoming more and more kinds of people in.”

Craig Rowe and Mike Krueger saw a similar niche in the wellness market in Tahoe, which led to the creation of Pika, a company that coordinates outdoor experiences with the mission to “promote and encourage responsible use of wilderness.” They created it after realizing how much time in the outdoors promoted wellness within their own careers in the tech industry.

PIKA is partly focused on outdoor recreation as a vessel for healing anxiety and trauma. Former tech industry guys Craig Rowe and Mike Krueger noticed a shift in their own lives and work after outdoor time, and started this company with that in mind. Shown here is a veterans’ group they work with preparing for an adventure at Joshua Tree National Park. Guides from Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School assisted the veterans in basic rock skills. Photos courtesy Craig Rowe

One of Pika’s largest clients is the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project. The two work with one section of the organization, Project Odyssey, where they help veterans with PTSD re-establish as normal a life as they can.

“We’re seeing with these veterans’ groups how spending time outdoors has this amazing effect,” Krueger said. “After a couple days these guys say, ‘I’ve got the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had.’ Whatever we’re doing, hiking, backpacking, kayaking, being out there is having this tremendous impact.”

And as the wellness industry grows, so too does the scientific research proving its success.

“Doctors across the country are starting to write prescriptions for being outside. Insurance companies are seeing the benefit [because] they don’t have to write checks for people being sick,” Krueger explained. “There’s been much more evidence-based research of nature as this platform for your mental wellbeing.”

In a similar vein, Incline Village’s Charlie White founded Move Mountains in 2014, which focuses on “getting the body engaged with the mind and creating experiences that open the mind to consider new ways of perceiving, thinking, or being in the world.”

Move Mountains primarily works with corporate leadership and management level people from out of the area.

“Categorically, people cling to Tahoe because of its beauty, but anybody that’s traveled knows there’s lots of places with natural beauty,” said White, addressing the draw of Tahoe to the wellbeing movement. “The difference with Tahoe is that Tahoe has a very strong culture of businesses who are working to leverage the natural components of this environment and draw people in to that environment.”

And it’s not just the yoga and outdoor industries benefiting from wellness tourism. Hotels like the Resort at Squaw Creek and The Ritz-Carlton are offering wellness-centered spa packages for tourists, finding an increase in the demand. And at restaurants and at farmers markets alike, the topic of whole and locally sourced foods is buzzing.

Wolfdale’s Cuisine Unique chef Douglas Dale says that his clients’ requests show trends over time indicating health movements, too.

Dale entered the industry in the 1970s because preparing healthy nutritious food is what made him want to be a chef. He trained in Japan, where he says that wellness is defined by keeping with tradition, respecting customs, and perfecting one particular thing, unlike in America where we’re more changeable.

He believes that a chef carries the responsibility to promote wellness and that culinary wellness comes from “an intimate relationship with the farmer,” he said. In his farmers market cooking classes Thursdays, the farmer is standing right there.

“If you want to know anything, ask them! Is it organic, what is this, what’s it good for, what do you do with it?” Dale said. “Then you have whole wellness: because people are much more aware. Not just is the nutrition better, but the yield is better and you feel better with organic foods. Is it worth it to treat yourself better? Yeah, it is.”

And why is this so well supported in Tahoe? “You have a pure clean lake out there that’s the fountain of youth,” he said. “There’s less stress up here, better air, better water … The cities are so congested, they’re pushing people out. It’s become expensive, and so congested that it’s unhealthy.”

THE SHADOW SIDE

With the popularity of the wellness movement coinciding with the boom of social media use, the concept of what is “trending” has also come to the forefront.

For Dale, in the culinary world, there is some worry about popularity in food trends as well. “You have to realize that as quickly as something comes in it might go out,” he said. “Maybe we can find another reason to use kale, or a similar leafy green vegetable. You have to dance around it. Trends can come like a ball of fire and they just burn out.”

Some worry that with the rise of branding, paid advertisements, and sponsorships, social media could not only promote trendy yet false information related to wellness, but also create an image of Tahoe that leads to “over tourism.”

“We’re impacting our wild places like never before. It’s a tough balance,” Rowe said. “Yeah, it’s great that people are getting outdoors, and I don’t want to disparage people from exploring Donner Summit. But it’s the education. There are some places that are beautiful and awesome to see, but they can handle a hundred people a week, not 5,000.”

PADDLE POWER: Project Odyssey frequently visits the coast of Central California to recreate and recover along its many beaches and quiet waterfront communities. Here, a group of veterans prepare to kayak in Morro Bay. Photos courtesy Craig Rowe

Krueger added, “A big part of our mission is we want you to be outside, but we want you to do it responsibly. More and more people are venturing into the outdoors, but I think there needs to be more education about what your impact is in the environment you’re traveling over.”

Krieg said that a rise in the yoga following has affected her industry, too. There are more teachers teaching out in parks and restaurants, chiropractic offices, and in-home privates. The common path for an experienced teacher, she said, is to open up a studio of their own. When this happens, the market becomes oversaturated.

“There are so many yoga studios in Tahoe and not one of them seems to be really thriving,” she explained. “Some studios are really switching around their dynamics. What we’re specifically doing here is we’re not gonna be that everyday studio. We’re tourist based, so we’re leaning towards retreats, workshops, and special events.”

For teacher McCracken, there are caveats to the wellness movement being popularized on social media as well.

“To a huge degree, social media is promoting a culture of disconnection. Ultimately, when we’re talking about wellness, we’re talking about more connection,” she said. “Wellness is a hard, lifelong journey that happens every moment. How it should look for you is about you walking your path, not walking my path. When we do this social media thing, we start to grasp at someone else’s path instead of living the life that was meant for us. So how can we use these tools to invite them into a space where we really can connect?”

A BETTER BUSINESS MODEL

In December 2018, outdoor retailer Patagonia sued President Donald Trump over a decision to greatly decrease the area of two protected national landmarks in Utah. Already known for its unfailing support of grassroots environmental activism throughout the years, this catapulted the company into even greater popularity for its position on sustainable business.

This concept has brought about the evolution of a more “sustainable business model.”

“People are starting to recognize there is another way about going about their lives in this world,” said McCracken. “As we see the wellness industry grow, we have a really great opportunity to show that we can operate with integrity within people searching for peace and wellness … we can offer that in a way that is sustainable for everyone and enhances everyone’s experience. If we’re going to be providing inlets for wellness for people, we have to be able to walk the walk in our own organizations.”

This combats the business model traditionally followed in the modern age, but can be equally successful, she said.

“You either do things in a way that sticks it to everybody and you get ahead, or you do things in a way that are sustainable for yourself and the Earth and you financially lose,” said McCracken. “But what I’m seeing is that if we do things in the wellness and yoga industry in a way that has clarity, integrity, and truthfulness and invites everyone in, we can have this be an industry that not only sustains us physically, mentally, emotionally … but financially as well.”

The guys at Pika have noticed this as well.

“Everybody’s in it to make money, no doubt about that. We’re a business,” said Rowe. “[But] we hope our business is beneficial and has a higher cause. That’s why we started it. I wanted my work to have purpose, and that’s why I like taking people outdoors. It has an actual impact on their lives. I’m not saying what we’re doing is better. But what we’re doing is sustainable capitalism. We’re trying to make money but understand what the impact is on the community around us and the people we serve.”