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Asia travel

Hot spring resorts in China: best places to relax and recuperate in thermal waters as demand for ancient bathing custom explodes

Bathing in hot springs is a centuries-old custom in China but is growing more popular as the Chinese – especially women – get richer and more wellness-savvy. We take a look at the best places to enjoy the experience in style

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 March, 2018, 7:15pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2018, 5:58pm

When temperatures dropped in China this winter, the staff at the Kayumanis hot springs resort at the foot of Tangshan mountain near Nanjing braced themselves. Soon, the already busy resort would receive a further flood of enquiries from guests looking to bathe in its private, thermal pools under a romantic flurry of snow.

The travel market for China’s hot springs is one of the fastest growing in the world. Revenues from hot springs trips, which follow the ancient custom of bathing in thermal waters for recuperative effect, more than quadrupled from 22.8 billion yuan (US$3.6 billion) in 2006 to 100 billion yuan in 2016, according to online travel agent Ma Feng Wo. Happily for resort owners, cold weather only makes the prospect of a warm bath more enticing.

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In the past decade, the rural backwater of Tangshan town has transformed into a hot springs tourism hub, thanks to government and commercial investment and a growing need for wellness breaks that offer respite from city life.

Kayumanis opened in 2007. Since then, new roads have been built that cut down travel time from Nanjing, as well as new hotels. Then, at the end of 2017, a dedicated hot springs public park opened, with running and cycle tracks encircling an artificial lake.

A report by Ma Feng Wo says that hot springs resorts were a key travel attraction during the 2018 Spring Festival. According to travel agency Ctrip, the number of their customers who booked hot spring trips in 2017 doubled compared with 2016.

“A decade ago, we were one of the only hotels here,” says Gerry Mola, front office manager for Kayumanis. “We could only see trees out of the windows.”

This year the resort has planted additional bamboo trees to disguise the loss of a small lake that was drained to make way for more villas that will extend the resort. “Everyone from Banyan Tree to Club Med have been looking at potential plots,” Mola says.

For thousands of years, China’s leaders have led the trend for relaxing in mineral baths. One of the earliest accounts of the hot springs obsession comes from the Zhou Dynasty, when King You ordered the construction of Li Palace, now Huaqing Palace, to take advantage of the nearby hot springs. The palace, near the ancient capital of Xian, became a temporary imperial home to the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui and Tang dynasties, and its grounds now include a complex of natural, thermal pools, which were added by the Tang dynasty’s Emperor Xuanzong.

More and more hot spring resorts have transformed from sauna-style to spa-style
Johnny Chang

China is blessed with thousands of hot springs, from northerly Jilin down to Yunnan province. There are currently around 3,000 hot springs businesses in China. Devotees believe that the mineralised water, which bubbles up past rocks to the earth’s surface, can relieve chronic joint pain, fatigue and uncomfortable skin conditions.

According to Ctrip, China’s love of hot springs is fuelled by women, who booked 70 per cent of the website’s trips in 2017.

Carolyn Mu, 28, a primary schoolteacher living in Weihai in Shandong Province, began visiting hot springs resorts regularly after graduating in 2014. “I usually go to hot springs with my friends. After having a bath, we get together in the lobby and have fun, watching TV, having a meal and playing cards,” she says.

Amanda Wang, 28, a purchasing manager from Shanghai, has been visiting hot springs resorts for the past five years to get away from the stress of urban life. She says she has noticed a distinct improvement in the overall quality of her experience, from the decor to cleanliness.

A modern approach to guest care is a relatively new concept in China, says Lim Boon-kwee, chief operating officer of hospitality group Dusit International, which opened Dusit Devarana Hot Springs & Spa, Conghua near Guangzhou in 2014.

“Most of the existing old hot springs resorts were built decades ago, and have dated designs and facilities,” he says. “By contrast, the new and upcoming hot springs resorts have stylish and unique designs which add to their appeal.”

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However, hotels can find it difficult to recruit qualified staff to deliver the spa treatments that modern customers have come to expect, says Johnny Chang, CEO of Spa Solutions.

“Most of the resorts have noticed the importance of improving their guests experience while many years ago they only cared for the sizes of the resorts,” he says. “More and more hot spring resorts have transformed from sauna-style to spa-style. That said, more than 85 per cent of ‘therapists’ are not qualified. This problem needs to be sorted out quickly.”

According to Chang, revenues will continue to climb as the trend for wellness grows.

“Chinese customers are getting richer and richer and becoming more wellness-savvy,” he says. “They firmly believe that the minerals from the hot springs make them stay healthy and rejuvenated.”

Are you ready to relax? Here are six resorts that could do the trick.

Banyan Tree Chongqing Beibei

If you’re looking to escape urban life for a few days without giving up on modern luxury, then this high-end hot springs resort is ideal.

Located in the hills near Chongqing city, a 50-minute car ride from the city’s airport, it has exquisite views of misty, mountain landscapes, lush forests and clear streams. All suites have a private hot springs dipping pool and the bigger villas also have swimming pools. There are also separate indoor hot spring baths for male and female guests and an outdoor hot spring pool. banyantree.com

Kayumanis Nanjing Private Villa & Spa

It’s easy to forget the outside world exists at this small but immaculate villa resort, half an hour’s drive from Nanjing city.

Each of the 21 villas has its own hot springs bath and private pool. Kayumanis is overseen by an Indonesian hotel group and the resort’s style is a blend of classic Chinese architecture with Southeast Asian touches. kayumanis.com

DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Hotel Hainan

Located in the heart of Qixianling National Forest Park, this resort hotel boasts views of a tropical rainforest and has a wide range of facilities perfect for families who need to find something to entertain everyone. The hotel has a 650 square metre (7,000 square foot) hot spring pool and adult and children swimming pools, and offers daily activities ranging from yoga to golf. doubletree3.hilton.com

Sheraton Huzhou Hot Spring Resort

This large, spectacularly designed hot springs hotel is located on the southern bank of Taihu Lake in Huzhou, Zhejiang province. Its distinctive ring shape that arches over the water instantly caused a stir when the hotel opened in 2013.

Guests have access to a private section of Taihu Lake (which has its own custom-built “wedding island”), an infinity pool and a private beach. starwoodhotels.com

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Bolian Resort and Spa, Chongqing

Surrounded by the green forested hills and ancient temples of Chongqing’s 1,600-year-old hot springs retreat, this resort in North Hot Springs Park is ideal for those who want a dedicated wellness break.

The air hums with the sound of drums and bells from the nearby Taoist temples, which adds to the magic of the experience. It’s all just 50 minutes from Chongqing airport, or 40 minutes’ drive from the city’s downtown district. bolianresorts.com

Dusit Devarana Hot Springs and Spa, Conghua

Situated just outside Guangzhou in lush, tropical environs, the Dusit resort is a 40-minute drive from Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. It has 133 villas and guest rooms and a spacious hot springs complex, and also offers Thai-inspired spa treatments. Well suited for families, the resort includes a large swimming pool, kids club, tennis court and karaoke facilities. dusit.com