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Termatalia, Spain and the World of Thermal Tourism

Roman-era thermal fountain in downtown Ourense (courtesy of Termatalia)

By Buzzy Gordon

As many of the world’s most popular sightseeing destinations struggle to cope with overtourism, there is one sector of the tourism industry that is not only experiencing impressive growth year after year, it actually welcomes the constant expansion — and is even working to increase it. The good news is that these people are also working hard to improve the visitor’s experience — and even competitors cooperate to share their knowledge and expertise, as well as to encourage research and development for the general good. I am referring, of course, to wellness tourism — and to thermal spa tourism in particular. 

The impressive numbers, and the ongoing science underpinning hydrotherapy — or perhaps more precisely, balneotherapy, the therapeutic benefit of immersion in thermal waters — were on display at Termatalia, the 19th International Exhibition of Thermal Tourism, Health and Wellness held last month in Ourense, Spain. The name Termatalia derives from the Spanish terms Termalismo (thermalism) and Talassoterapia — thalassotherapy, the therapeutic use of seawater.

Ourense is the global headquarters of the Termatalia organization, whose remarkable growth mirrors that of the sector as a whole. In the 20 short years of its existence, it went from a regional organization in 1999 to incorporate neighboring European countries and subsequently reach out to Latin America; since 2012, the annual trade show has been alternating between Latin America and Spain. Last year, it was held in Foz do Iguazu, Brazil; next year, it will be held in Entre Rios, Argentina. 

“Today,” says CEO Emma Gonzalez, “Termatalia is as much a brand as a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering cooperation between the public and private sectors, as well as building bridges between Eurasia and the Americas. As a brand, our focus is on the culture of water as a medium of wellbeing — both external (bathing) and internal (drinking).”

Ourense is a small provincial city to be the biennial host of a trade show attended by representatives of up to 40 countries, but it comes by its prominence in the industry legitimately: it is known as “the thermal capital of Spain,” by virtue of the hot springs that have attracted bathers to its curative waters since Roman times. A network of thermal waters extends from central and southern Galicia in northwestern Spain to northern and central Portugal, whose border is less than an hour’s drive from Ourense. 

In addition to its thermal waters, Galicia is known for its scenic beauty, its wineries and the Camino de Santiago, the iconic pilgrimage route to the revered Catholic city of Santiago de Compostela. But the lure of the thermal waters has been around the longest: there is an exquisite thermal fountain and pool in the heart of Ourense that date back to the Roman conquest in the first century, with gushing water still flowing at temperatures reaching 150 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The presence of thermal springs has proved to be a powerful engine of tourism development the world over. In 2017, global revenues of the thermal/mineral springs segment of tourism reached $19.7 billion — and that is not including the spa services that often complement the thermal experience: together, thermal waters with spa services generate twice as much revenue ($39.1 billion), representing no less than one-third of the value of the spa industry as a whole. 

The projected growth of the thermal spa segment is rosy: with an annual growth rate of close to 5%, the forecast is for $64.6 billion in revenues by 2020. The main reason for this is that thermal spa treatments really are for everybody, and can be tailored for every purpose, from simple vacation relaxation and pampering to dealing with real health challenges.


Mineral water tasting for the general public (courtesy of Termatalia)

The thermal spas of Europe, with their centuries of history and experience, provide guests with several different levels of care, falling into the categories of wellness, health, and medical. Wellness is appropriate for everyone, even people who are healthy and suffering from no particular complaint: the aim is to provide a sense of overall well-being, through the balancing of the physical, mental and spiritual.  

Health is the intermediate category, for people with particular complaints or conditions, whether physical, such as localized pain, or psychosomatic — for example, clients needing to reduce stress. Guests in this category generally seek out spas specializing in targeted therapies; and while they may have embarked on a course of treatment upon the recommendation of a healthcare practitioner, they are not, strictly speaking, under “doctor’s orders.”

Medical, meanwhile, is precisely that: a patient is under the care and supervision of a physician, who prescribes an exact course of treatment following a specific protocol.

Another lucrative adaptation destination spas are making is becoming family-friendly: the abundance of water sources has led many resorts to use cooler water and build miniature amusement parks with water slides, artificial rivers and waterfalls and other water park attractions for children of all ages. Even the adult swimming pools are often outfitted with fun options, like artificial currents, air jets for whirlpool action, and partially submerged reclining beds .

The Termatalia expo is an opportunity for everyone associated with thermal tourism to exhibit, display, educate, inform and network — from vendors selling equipment and technology (e.g., water pumping and filtration systems, hydrotherapy units) to tourism boards promoting regional destinations; and from spa and resort complexes to non-profit associations highlighting thematic aspects.   

Among the interesting associations in attendance were the European Historic Thermal Towns Association, which represents more than 40 cities and territories in 16 countries, and promotes trips encompassing the rich thermal heritage of Europe. Similarly, the association of Roman Thermal Spas of Europe, comprising members from nine different countries spanning the continent, carries on the tradition linking the network of thermal baths established originally by the Roman empire for the rest and recuperation of its legionnaires. 

From ancient history to modern science: Termatalia is also a forum for the presentation of research papers vital to the industry and its leaders. Important convocations taking place in parallel to the expo were the 15th International Meeting on Water and Health, and the III International Symposium on Thermalism and the Quality of Life. Studies conducted at Galicia’s University of Vigo are validating the science behind the efficacy of thermal waters in treating a variety of conditions. Courses are also offered for accreditation in the industry.


Termatalia’s display of international bottled mineral waters. Photo Buzzy Gordon


One of the most popular Termatalia exhibits was the water bar, where visitors could taste dozens of brands of mineral waters from all over Europe and South America.  Nearby was a towering display featuring literally hundreds of bottles of mineral water, of all colors, shapes, sizes and even unusual natural flavors, like rosemary. 

On the last afternoon of the trade show, Termatalia hosted a tasting competition, with six professional water sommeliers as judges, equipped with multiple glasses, spittoons, crackers to be eaten between sips, and detailed score sheets for grading the 30 finalists.

“Water sommelier is a recognized and certified profession, like wine sommelier,” says Carmen Gonzalez, president of both the Association of Mineral Water Tasters in Andalusia and the Spanish Association of Mineral Waters. Gonzalez sat on the international panel of judges, who evaluated the mineral waters on characteristics that included aroma, taste (acid, alkaline, salty), and visual (clarity, brilliance, transparency). In the end, prizes were awarded to winners in categories that ranged from low mineral content to high mineral content, natural carbonation to artificial carbonation, and all sorts of classifications that only a trained palate could discern.

The day after the exhibitors closed their booths, Termatalia sponsored field trips along thermal routes, another trend in the industry. Both outings involved collaborations between Spain and Portugal: the Chaves-Verin route, for example, is actually trademarked and marketed year-round as the “Euro-city of water,” with the advertising slogan “one destination, two countries.” (Chaves, in Portugal, is also affiliated with the Roman Thermal Spas of Europe.) 

The second thermal route is less established, as it centers around the thermal baths in the northern Portuguese city of Melgaço, which have been closed for renovations for several years; with the aid of a €7 million grant from the European Union, the refurbished thermal center — baths and clinic — should re-open in the spring of 2020. Interestingly, the baths here claim a track record of ameliorating diabetes, when the waters are ingested. 


Historic structure housing thermal spring in Melgaço, Portugal. Photo Buzzy Gordon.

The thermal waters of Melgaço also commingle, in certain sections, with the Minho River, which boasts Class I rapids; in fact, one of the tourist attractions of Melgaço is rafting, and rafters are invited to stop paddling and enjoy a dip in the occasional warm currents. Other sightseeing attractions in Melgaço include a beautiful structure with stained glass from the early 20th century that houses one of the thermal springs; a medieval castle and tower with historical museum, surrounded by a picturesque village; a museum of cinema with rare movie posters; and a center that showcases the gastronomy of the region, especially its smoked meats and Alvarinho wine — a highly regarded white varietal.  


Thermal baths along the Minho River in Ourense. Photo Buzzy Gordon.

The same Minho River, meanwhile, runs through the city of Ourense as well, where thermal pools have been built along the banks of the river. A cute tourist “train” runs from the center of Ourense to the hot baths on the city’s outskirts, and an inviting tourism poster shows a smiling family preparing to board the train — dressed in their bathrobes. 




Over the course of a 40-year career that has spanned more than 80 countries, award-winning journalist Buzzy Gordon has been a reporter, editor, and travel writer on five continents. His work has appeared in USA Today (where he was a regular travel columnist), National Geographic TravelerThe Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, among other leading publications. Buzzy is the author of Frommer’s Jerusalem Day by Day Guide and a contributor to publications in Israel and the United States.

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