Spa culture good for stress, businessThese days more Koreans are soaking away their stress and disposable income at spas.
The soothing water and pampering touch found at spas is big business and the spa-craze is impacting culture nationwide.
When spas first started popping up in the wealthy, fashionable neighborhoods of Apgujeong and Cheongdam in southern Seoul four years ago, there was social backlash and criticism that the spas were evidence of conspicuous consumption.
Spas, however, survived the criticism and are now being acknowledged as a high-income service business.
The spa trend was in part led by local deluxe hotels. Famous four or five-star hotels in Korea always had sauna and massage facilities, but it has been less than a year since the major hotels set up spa services under brand names, such as cosmetics firms. Hotels also try to attract customers through “spa packages,” touting luxury and rest. These marketing promotions had been offered for foreign locations, but not in Korea until recently.
At one upper-end hotel spa in Seoul, a 90-minute hydrotherapeutic bath, which features air jets that massage your body, followed by a 60-minute detoxifying back rub and facial, costs 780,000 won ($817). Add in some “intensive care” for tired hands and feet, and the cost jumps to more than 10 million won, not including the service tax.
These facilities provide special rooms for couples and offer customized music, flowers, and aromatherapy.
While these new luxury spas reflect the increase of high-end spa users, another prominent change is taking place in the middle price range. These spas are priced at about half that of luxury spas ― which still makes them expensive for everyday use ― but they are popular among women who visit once or twice a month. The service differs depending on choices, but most mid-tier spas offer a 50- to 90-minute quick package deal that costs about 150,000 won. The deal usually consists of a bath (which spas call ‘water therapy’) and aroma oil massage.
Many spas also have lunch-time deals for working women, which may include a scalp massage, hand and foot massages, or facial care for under 50,000 won.
Yoon Ji-yeon, a 42-year-old public relations agent and mother of two, likes spas because they are the “laziest, most comfortable” method of practicing well-being.
“I know well-being is about eating healthy foods and doing yoga and all that, but frankly, I don’t want to go to all that effort. At a spa, all I have to do is lie down and close my eyes and I’m treated like a queen. If I’m paying, I’d rather pay to relax than sweat over a running machine. I’m already running around at home chasing after the kids,” she said.
Ms. Yoon doesn’t think she’s being frivolous or selfish.
“I work at the office and I work at home. If men are allowed to come home late once in a while because they are drinking, I think I am entitled to my spas. And why shouldn’t I care about my looks at my age?”
Since spas are sometimes associated with beauty and well-being, many define themselves as “medical spas” and are run by clinics.
Unlike the United States, where medical spas were first developed as a form of therapy for senior citizens or those needing physical rehabilitation, Korean medical spas were mostly established by doctors in dermatology or plastic surgery.
The most popular program at medical spas are those for weight loss, involving strong jets of water that supposedly break up cellulite. Most medical spas, however, are clinics with spa services on the side. Services may include skin-brightening or removing freckles with lasers.
“In the past, most of our clients were brides-to-be, but now about 80 percent are married women,” said Kim Sun-hee, a nurse at a medical spa in Gangnam. “Freckles need constant care and many women who don’t work come during the day. They can save two trips.”
Hotels are beginning to offer spa services for women and men.
“Massage parlors in Korea were places that only men went to, and at many of those places, men had the option of having sex afterwards, which is why women were not allowed. But now, men really want to relax and enjoy the spa,” said Kim Ki-bong, a therapeutic massage shop owner in Itaewon.
The spa-craze has influenced the culture in other ways.
Public baths, for example, have undergone a major makeover. Old public baths with their tiles and fluorescent lighting are being replaced by larger dry saunas equipped with updated facilities that mix in Western spa concepts.
And large resort spas are beginning to cater to families. In the past year, several large spas with swimming pools have opened near Seoul. These spas are located in the countryside and most have indoor and outdoor pools.
“Koreans are obsessed with well-being and it is only natural, since health is an important factor of life. Spas in the city, however, are small and mostly for women, which is why I planned this outdoor spa for families,” said Choi Jae-won, who runs a spa with Japanese and German-style spa facilities in Gwangju. Mr. Choi’s facility has 120 types of baths. Admission is 20,000 won for adults and 15,000 won for children on weekends. Other resort-style spas cost around 50,000 won.
The popularity of spas is also altering society’s outlook on therapists, who are sometimes graduates of vocational colleges.
“I’ve been working as a therapist for 10 years, but people never actually called me a therapist until lately. Before, it was always “masseuse” or “massage girl,” which had a derogatory nuance,” said 30-year old Park Sun-hye. “A lot has changed now and even my parents aren’t embarrassed any more when they tell people that I’m a therapist. I heard that working conditions and wages at luxury spas were very good. My wages haven’t changed drastically, but I feel my social status has.”
by Wohn Dong-hee