Exploiting geothermal waters for wellness tourism

Exploiting geothermal waters for wellness tourism

Mývatn Nature Baths

The Mývatn Nature Baths (see: www.jardbodin.is) offer a concrete manifestation of the expectations tourism entrepreneurs round Iceland hold towards the abundant geo-thermal water in the country. Lake Mývatn has long been one of the best known destinations in N. Iceland, although in recent years the nearby town of Húsavík has started to rival it with its fame as a whale watching spot. The attractions of the lake and its surroundings are in the form of numerous geological features set in an idyllic sparsely populated countryside. The geology of the region is very active due to the lake being on the volcanically active zone in NE Iceland. This means that in addition to all the features and unique nature, boiling water and steam emanates from the ground.

Myvatn

The Mývatn Nature Baths (MNB) are founded upon the steam that comes from the ground. Traditionally locals had made use of the hot water and steam for bathing especially in one particular spot named after the activity: Hotspring bathing hills (Jarðbaðshólar). In 1996 a couple of local entrepreneurs decided to revitalise the tradition and put up a fibre-plastic barrack shape facility over one of the crevices in Jarðbaðshólar, as had been done a couple of times before in the 20th Century. Thus they created a natural steam bath, and as the steam is coming from fresh ground water, magma heated from below, it is relatively odour free as opposed to the often distinct H2S smell geothermal water carries. The steam bath became an immediate success with locals and word spread amongst tourists in the region. With growing demand the idea of developing good service facilities took root. Two years later a limited holdings company (Baðfélag Mývatnssveitar hf.) was set up around the idea and six years thereafter in spring 2004 the current facility was up and opened to visitation. This facility is only partly built around the old nature steam bath. The centre piece of the facility is the blue thermal pool with water provided from the National Power Company’s nearby energy facility. There, much like in Svartsengi (Blue Lagoon, Iceland), boreholes provide steam that propels turbines and generates electricity for local industry, but thereafter the steam is put directly to the pool. This surplus water had been pumped out before and was pooling up at the roadside of ring-road number 1 going through the area and attracting a considerable tourism bathing crowd, furthering demand for facilities to be built.

The number of visitors to the MNB is juxtaposed with the total number of foreign visitors to the region. Obviously the region also gets domestic tourists but only estimates of overnights are available for them. Generally what the table indicates is that MNB seems to have immediately secured the relevant portion of the market and stabilised at around a third of foreign guests visiting the region. As the building of the facility had been fully funded with share capital, mainly from various government funds, the owner of the MNB, the Mývatn Bathing Company ltd., has turned a profit every year from start. In spring 2009 a 300m2 extension to the existing facility was opened, housing a restaurant and a retail corner for souvenirs and nature cosmetics from Icelandic producers. To date with the addition the facility consists of a 5.000m2 pool with geothermal water from the nearby power plant. There are two natural steam baths there, built on the old idea of using steam coming from crevices in the area. There are hot tubs, with water slightly hotter than what is in the pool. There are facilities to change, showers and washrooms, along with a small kiosk/restaurant and retail outlet. All this represents a considerable change from what used to be there prior to 2004 as then the only facility was the fibre-plastic barrack and a hose for rinsing.

Under the general terms of rest and relaxation, the MNB advertises that one should come there to relax and soak in the hot water in beautiful surroundings, an escape from it all in that sense. On the other hand what emerges through interviews stakeholders of the MNB and Mývatn Bathing Company (MBC) is that, contrary to expectations, the marketing focus is not on health and wellness, but is simply about providing a needed service (bathing), the traditional way. There was a need for an all year round recreation in the area and the customers were already there. “It was just a matter of picking them from the main road” (MBC chairman) and the water and tradition for bathing was already there. As this form of bathing is traditional this ensured the good-will and co-operation of the locals, both through direct investment and use of the facility and ensuring a good reputation as informants in the region made unanimously clear.

Thus, on the most general level, what the MNB seems to provide is a needed ballast for other service offerings. This has led to the expansion of existing ones and increasing interest in developing new service offerings, amongst these is the interest for health and wellness tourism. Centred on the MBC, using the MNB as a central attraction, formal health and wellness tourism is being established and various informal spin-offs and ideas are germinating in the adjacent village and the rural area around the lake.

Under the general terms of rest and relaxation, the MNB advertises that one should come there to relax and soak in the hot water in beautiful surroundings, an escape from it all in that sense. On the other hand what emerges through interviews stakeholders of the MNB and Mývatn Bathing Company (MBC) is that, contrary to expectations, the marketing focus is not on health and wellness, but is simply about providing a needed service (bathing), the traditional way. There was a need for an all year round recreation in the area and the customers were already there. “It was just a matter of picking them from the main road” (MBC chairman) and the water and tradition for bathing was already there. As this form of bathing is traditional this ensured the good-will and co-operation of the locals, both through direct investment and use of the facility and ensuring a good reputation as informants in the region made unanimously clear.

Thus, on the most general level, what the MNB seems to provide is a needed ballast for other service offerings. This has led to the expansion of existing ones and increasing interest in developing new service offerings, amongst these is the interest for health and wellness tourism. Centred on the MBC, using the MNB as a central attraction, formal health and wellness tourism is being established and various informal spin-offs and ideas are germinating in the adjacent village and the rural area around the lake.

Under the general terms of rest and relaxation, the MNB advertises that one should come there to relax and soak in the hot water in beautiful surroundings, an escape from it all in that sense. On the other hand what emerges through interviews stakeholders of the MNB and Mývatn Bathing Company (MBC) is that, contrary to expectations, the marketing focus is not on health and wellness, but is simply about providing a needed service (bathing), the traditional way. There was a need for an all year round recreation in the area and the customers were already there. “It was just a matter of picking them from the main road” (MBC chairman) and the water and tradition for bathing was already there. As this form of bathing is traditional this ensured the good-will and co-operation of the locals, both through direct investment and use of the facility and ensuring a good reputation as informants in the region made unanimously clear.

Thus, on the most general level, what the MNB seems to provide is a needed ballast for other service offerings. This has led to the expansion of existing ones and increasing interest in developing new service offerings, amongst these is the interest for health and wellness tourism. Centred on the MBC, using the MNB as a central attraction, formal health and wellness tourism is being established and various informal spin-offs and ideas are germinating in the adjacent village and the rural area around the lake.

In the marketing strategy of the MNB there is a reference to the science of balneotherapy not only to the fact that hot water relieves pain and aches, but also citing its chemical properties. The minerals suspended in the geothermal water and precipitating or evaporating from it are held to have healing properties in numerous ways. This has been studied in Japan especially where e.g. water rich in sulphur is said to relieve bronchial complications and silica and other minerals are beneficial to skin problems of all kinds. The healing properties of the water has been proven with testing in the Blue Lagoon, but so far not in the Mývatn Nature Baths and it bears little on the destination’s development. This means that the former can offer government subsidised treatment linking tourism with welfare state provision, whilst the latter cannot. This reference to balneotherapy points towards another strand of health and wellness tourism development prominent in the region.

This entry has been supplied by Edward H Huijbens [edward@unak.is], Icelandic Tourism Research Centre, Borgum v/Nordurslod, 600 Akureyri, Iceland (IS) Tel: +354 460-8930, mobile: +354 847-4104


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