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Spa Business
2023 issue 4

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Leisure Management - Thermal Heritage

Association focus

Thermal Heritage


The unique cultural relevance of European spa towns is being protected, celebrated and promoted through two organisations: the European Historic Thermal Towns Association and the Great Spa Towns of Europe. Jane Kitchen talks to the people heading up both associations

Friedrichsbad Spa in Germany's Baden-Baden - which is both an EHTTA and GSTE member town ©baden-baden tourism board, n dautel. photo: Dominik Ketz
At the core of spa towns, including Budapest, are natural therapeutic waters which people bathe in photo: Budapest Spas Company
Drinking spring water is part of ‘the cure’ in thermal towns such as Karlovy Vary photo: Municipality of Karlovy Vary
The landscape in and around spa towns, such as Bad Ems, is incredibly important photo:Dominik Ketz
Many sites, including Lądek-Zdrój in Poland, showcase outstanding examples of spa architecture photo: Municipality of Lądek-Zdrój
Spa in Belgium shows how EHTTA towns offer slower, greener tourism photo: gerd herren
Spa towns such as Bad Ems had planned promenades frequented by the rich and famous photo: Museum and City Archives Bad Ems

Europe has an incredibly rich and deep history when it comes to spas, with much of it dating back more than 2,000 years. The Romans built cities around natural thermal springs which now sit at the epicentre of countries such as England, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Portugal, France, Serbia and Bulgaria.

By the 10th century, many European spas had been taken over by monasteries, which held spiritual beliefs around the healing qualities of water. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, a new kind of spa town was emerging. These locations combined therapeutic and natural landscapes, high culture and fashionable resorts, casinos and sports halls. And the railways brought the people there.

“The European spa towns were the original tourism destinations,” explains Paul Simons, retired secretary general of the Great Spa Towns of Europe (GSTE). “After [the railroads] connected capital cities and the great industrial areas, they didn’t go to the seaside – they went to spa towns. Spa towns were the prototype of what are now resorts in the modern tourism business.”

Europe’s royalty gathered in the towns and artists, writers and composers – including Mozart and Beethoven – sought patronage as well as peace and quiet while ‘taking the cure’ and producing new work. By the 19th century, more than 600 spa towns existed across Europe. Today, over 400 of them remain, many of which still have a strong tradition of wellbeing and culture.

A cultural route
In 2009, a group of six historic thermal towns came together to create an organisation to celebrate their unique offering. The European Historic Thermal Towns Association (EHTTA), which today includes 50 member spa towns across 18 countries, is a political representation of its member towns, lobbying on their behalf and connecting them to other European institutions. Its mission is to enhance, promote and protect thermal tourism and thermal heritage in Europe.

On top of this, EHTTA also serves as, and manages, one of 48 Cultural Routes created by the Council of Europe. These routes encourage visitors to take “a journey through space and time” to understand Europe’s shared and living heritage and provide marketing and communication to consumers.

“The association is the backbone – the organisational and institutional frame,” explains Simone Zagrodnik, executive director of EHTTA. “But the Cultural Route – this is where you can really play up the cultural tourism and health tourism aspects.”

Towns or municipalities pay a membership fee to be part of EHTTA and there’s also funding from sponsorship and other projects. In addition to sharing knowledge, expertise and best practices, members benefit from marketing efforts as well as press trips and travel agent familiarisation excursions (see p50). This is something many of the smaller spa towns could never accomplish on their own.

Making spa towns great again
Then in 2021, GSTE, which represents Europe’s most iconic spa towns, gained World Heritage status from UNESCO following a 10-year process and 1,200 pages of documentation. The 11 famous thermal locales in seven countries (see p53) are a ‘serial transnational’ World Heritage Site which “deserve global recognition as a phenomenon which helped to shape the Europe we know today”.

Chiara Ronchini, the new secretary general of GSTE, says: “Together, these 11 locations represent excellence in terms of spa towns with a living tradition. Individually they were picked because they all showcase outstanding examples of spa architecture, infrastructure and urban form. There was a really long process of selection – we started with over 40, then narrowed it down to 16 and finally to 11 – so these are the top, top, top. They have to be representative of excellence.”

Zagrodnik explains further: “If someone wants to experience the phenomenon of a thermal town or a spa town, the first in line is GSTE because they are all pearls – the crème de la crème. But if someone wants to experience more, the Cultural Route has a broader range in terms of small villages and thermal regions.”

Each GSTE location has multiple features in common that unite them. From the springs themselves and surrounding architecture to the parks and gardens and leisure institutions – such as opera halls – to some of the oldest sports facilities in the world. But many of the spa towns in the EHTTA also share some, if not all, of those attributes.

Being a serial transnational World Heritage Site means that all 11 GSTE work together as one while retaining their individual identities. The management board then brings additional support, including cultural programmes, conservation, regeneration, investment and education in each spa town. Being a part of a World Heritage Site also brings responsibilities in terms of protecting each spa town’s features and keeping it safe for future generations.

“It’s important to stress that these are towns and municipalities – not individual sites,” says Zagrodnik. “That is the challenge for both organisations. We represent towns, municipalities, destinations, not a single Roman bath or historic building.”

Wellbeing landscape
The landscape that surrounds spa towns is incredibly important to the overall sense of wellbeing, with most incorporating a planned promenade to walk along – and to see and be seen. This was a vital part of a spa town’s appeal in its heyday – a sort of 18th-century social media, where you might spot a queen or a prince or a musician rubbing elbows with members of regular society.

The spa parks and gardens provide essential green space within the towns, but surrounding forests and landscapes with trails for exercise have also been an important part of the wider cure associated with the waters as well. Many towns took advantage of picturesque views, with funicular railways transporting visitors to higher-up vistas.

Local restaurants traditionally served healthy food and in many areas, the thermal water was (and is) part of the cuisine. In Caldes de Montbui in Spain, for instance, the Sanmartí company has been making pasta with thermal water since 1700, local craft beer is brewed with thermal water and in the summer months, gazpacho is made from local tomatoes (irrigated with cooled thermal water) and thermal water.

“All spa towns offer a mix of wellness, culture, relaxation and outdoor activities,” says Ronchini. “We want to make sure that that diversification of offer is truly sustainable through the promotion of locally sourced produce, walking and cycling routes and the sustainable use and re-use of water.”

Since COVID-19, she’s noticed a particular growing interest in slower, greener tourism and in people seeking quality rather than quantity. “Spa towns are the perfect destination for this, having been conceived as a whole with the surrounding therapeutic landscape,” she says. “This really forms part of the experience, with the spa treatments coupled with walks or cycles in the forest, panoramic views and natural springs in the wild.”

Member benefits
The mayors of the 11 GSTE pay an annual membership fee based on each town’s population, which ranges from 5,500 people to 88,500. Benefits of having World Heritage Site recognition can include new investment in infrastructure, transportation and visitor facilities, but disadvantages can include over-crowding and stress on local communities.

“The objectives of the Council of Europe [representing EHTTA as a Cultural Route] and UNESCO [where GSTE is a World Heritage Site] are really quite different,” says Simons. “UNESCO ultimately focuses on protecting a unique global heritage. Tourism is not one of its objectives.”

Ronchini explains that at their pinnacle the GSTE generated incredible cultural and artistic initiatives – and they still do today. “We’ve got festivals, music, art, literature and all that is related to medicine, balneology and other spa-related disciplines,” she says. “There’s a vibrant, dynamic living element that you can only have in an urban setting.”

Simons says that some GSTE members don’t want more tourists – they have enough already. Their goal, instead, is to encourage higher spending and longer stays. By contrast, the smaller towns in EHTTA want to use the Cultural Route to entice more visitors.

“We have to spread our influence and help the lesser-known places benefit from the bigger places,” explains Simons. “GSTE can use its influence to diversify the impact from places that are possibly already experiencing over-tourism and help some of the less popular towns. So there’s a great synergy there to work together.”

As for future plans, GSTE’s Ronchini wants to focus on responsible tourism and climate action, while Zagrodnik wants to expand EHTTA’s membership, especially in eastern and south-eastern Europe.

Zagrodnik concludes: “Europe’s spa towns are not known with the depth that they should be. I want to create more attention and awareness and make a lot of noise on an international level. There’s so much potential for us to share what we are.”

Spa towns by rail

Member benefits of EHTTA include press and familiarisation trips. Most recently, the association collaborated with Eurail to take select VIPs – including Spa Business’ Jane Kitchen – on a tour of some of Europe’s best and most famous spa towns.

They travelled via train – the wellness tourist’s transport of choice back in the day – to Spa in Belgium, Bad Ems in Germany, Baden bei Wien in Austria and Budapest in Hungary. The trip also marked the 50th anniversary of the iconic Interrail Pass.

The Great Spa Towns of Europe

• Baden bei Wien, AUSTRIA

• Spa, BELGIUM

• Františkovy Lázně, CZECH REPUBLIC

• Karlovy Vary, CZECH REPUBLIC

• Mariánské Lázně, CZECH REPUBLIC

• Vichy, FRANCE

• Bad Ems, GERMANY

• Bad Kissingen, GERMANY

• Baden-Baden, GERMANY

• Montecatini Terme, ITALY

• Bath, UK

photo: Santiago Arribas Peña

"We started with 40 possible great spa towns and narrowed them down to 11 – so these are the top, top, top" – GSTE’s Chiara Ronchin

photo: EHTTA

“The association is the backbone – the organisational and institutional frame – but the Cultural Route, this is where you can really play up the cultural tourism and health tourism aspects” -EHTTA’s Simone Zagrodnik


Originally published in Spa Business 2023 issue 4

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