Traditions of Estonian Spa & Wellness: Kept Alive Through Tourism? An Ethnographic Journey Through Western and Southern Estonia

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This Master thesis investigates if, and how, tourism is affecting the vitality of cultural wellness traditions in Estonia. For nearly 200 years, wellness traditions have been an integral part of Estonian culture. Throughout Estonia’s complicated history, the small Baltic nation has attempted to preserve the essential roots of heritage (Estonianness), especially in light of its second independence in 1991. Estonia has strategically used tourism as a development strategy via branding campaigns to showcase their unique traditions on the global scale; spa and well tourism developments were a major part of this effort. As a direct result, Estonia is progressing into a tourism “hotspot”, and furthermore a wellness destination. Wellness tourism is currently a valuable niche trend to analyze; the worldwide wellness industry represents 5.3% of global economic output, making it one of the fastest-growing industries globally, and an impressive 43% of all customers in wellness facilities are tourists. Research has shown wellness tourism is increasingly interconnected with cultural experiences and serves as a driving force for authentic, multisensory, and memorable encounters in the experience economy. Estonian spas and wellness centers stage reproductions of these traditions, thus commodifying their heritage. Some Estonian wellness traditions have been dying or are progressively being forgotten, such as the smoke sauna ritual. Through an autoethnographic journey to two key wellness regions in Estonia, Pärnu and Võru, a method of participant observation was deployed, in conjunction with interviews of industry leaders to observe the general trend and discourse: tourism is actively helping to keep traditions alive. To date, there has been a lack of research on the relationship between wellness tourism and culture, especially in the Estonian case. This research was conducted with the guidance of Visit Estonia, paving way for future research on cultural preservation in the discipline of tourism studies and human geography.
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