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21 Jul, 2008

Coming Next: “Mental Health Tourism”

You’ve heard of “medical tourism” and “health and wellness tourism”. Now, get ready for a new one: “Mental Health Tourism.”

A paper presented by a group of Japanese researchers at the Asia Pacific Tourism Association annual conference in Bangkok last week says that this form of tourism would be specifically targetted at urban dwellers suffering from depression and stress, largely as a result of sitting for too long in front of computer screens.

Said the paper, “Especially, in modern Japan, people tend to lose their mental health. The Cabinet Office, Government of Japan (2007) showed that the number of patients who suffer mental diseases in 2006 was two times higher than in 1996.

“The estimated number of patients suffering from mental disease was over 3 million, with one third of the patients being treated for depression. One person in every forty in Japan has serious mental problems!

“Therefore, as a nation, Japan has to deal with this situation. Japanese companies, especially big companies, have found themselves paying more money on preventions, treatments, and leaves of absence due to mental diseases such as depression. Japanese schools also have introduced a school counselor in every school to cope with this situation.”

Conducted by Takashi Ouchi and Aiko Matsuura of Chiba University and Shingo Shiota of Waseda University, the paper warned, “That which has happened in Japan will happen in the near future in other Asian countries.”

The research findings covered questionnaire based replies and study of stress levels amongst an unspecified number of Japanese males in their 30s employed by large companies.

At this stage, it was designed only to understand the background and concept of this potential new market in order to help planners, designers and marketers prepare the products, services and strategies that would be required to reach and cater to it.

This new concept of “mental health tourism” can be characterised “as one type of special interest tourism and health tourism,” the researchers said. While previous studies have revealed the beneficial effect of normal leisure activities or tourism on one’s mental condition, they “have methodological problems in focusing (specifically) on mental health.”

It added, “We can illustrate two kinds of mental health tourism. One is a type of tourism which is short term, and is suited to the general populace. This type consists of one or two day stays in rather large lodgings, such as huge hotels.

“The other form of tourism is long term, and is geared for recovery from depression. It has three purposes 1) to recover from depression quickly, 2) to decrease the load on family members and on company expenses, 3) to establish life rhythm. This type of tourism requires small size lodgings.”

Entirely unsuitable for severe and acute depression, mental health tourism will involve features such as the “activation of five senses” especially to restore the balance of getting clients away from “spending hours behind a PC.”

It will also require facilities for “psychological training to cope with daily stress, foster communication and other interpersonal skills” as well as support from local residents and an atmosphere of hospitality, and opportunities for mental health tourists to interact with local residents.”

In terms of locations, “the best place to locate mental health tourism (facilities) is close to metropolises” especially as people in modern societies suffering from depression or lack of energy “can’t travel a long distance” anyway.

“Above all, (mental health) tourism offers the chance to (see) one’s own ordinary life from a different point of view. This feature is a fundamental element of mental health tourism,” the study said.

Is there money in it? Most certainly.

According to the study, the value of normal domestic tourism in Japan is about 19.2 trillion yen (192 billion US$). So, if mental health tourism can be applied to just 10% of that, it would be worth 1.92 billion US$.

“As mentioned before, one of the biggest issues in Japan is mental care or the health of all generations. Therefore, such a percentage is probable.”

It noted that the total amount of Japan’s corporate expenses on training alone is estimated at about U.S.$ 6 billion. If just 10% of that “can be paid for mental health tourism, that is, U.S.$ 600 million…. the minimally estimated of the market of mental health tourism is huge.”

In order to build up mental health tourism, further studies will be required to establish that it is proving effective, what kind of activities and facilities are required to make it so, which target markets are likely to benefit most, the “the cost performance” of this new segment and how best to make it “appeal as a marketable commodity.”

It said that such studies are being done in Chiba prefecture which is next to Tokyo metropolitan region (population of more than 12 million) and in the Kanto area (more than 40 million people). The local prefecture is funding the studies as a means of attracting people and investment into the region which is experiencing a declining population.

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