A Look at the American Hot Springs Spa Landscape

By Deborah Smith Principal, Smith Club & Spa Specialists, USA | July 24, 2016

Widespread enthusiasm for a natural hot springs experience over the last ten years has growing numbers of wellness- and recreation-oriented consumers in America building their travel and vacation plans around these scenic destinations. Places where simple enjoyment of Mother Nature, outdoor recreation, and the pleasure of total relaxation are the main attractions.

Wellness and recreation-based tourism centered around hot mineral springs is estimated to be a $50 billion global industry according to the Global Wellness Institute (GWI), a Miami-based think tank that has published several research reports concerning the global hot springs market in the past few years. Entrepreneurs and innkeepers have taken note of the 2015 Thermal/Mineral Springs Economy Report, a free download online and the first of its kind. The report states, "As renewed interest in the special properties of thermal and mineral waters continues to pick up momentum, we expect to see a growing number of businesses built around mineral hot springs in countries where the industry is less developed."

Though dwarfed in number by Asia/Pacific (20,300) and Europe (5,035), GWI estimates the number of North American commercial hot springs establishments at a little over 200, accounting for $500 million in annual revenues. However, there are an additional 1,700 non-commercialized natural springs in the United States that have been surveyed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a science-based federal agency within the Department of Commerce with regulatory, operational, and information service responsibilities. Its "Thermal Springs List" is a compilation of this data and can be found online.

In 2011, SMU's Geothermal Laboratory completed a third generation heat flow map of the continental U.S. that is supported by Google.org. This interactive map pinpoints all known commercial and non-commercial geothermal spring sites and is a valuable resource for all those in the industry. The majority of commercial facilities in the United States are situated in the western states where volcanic activity is most prevalent. However, there are notable historic thermal springs properties in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Arkansas (Hot Springs), the Virginias (the Homestead and the Greenbrier), and New York (Saratoga).

Popular interest in mineral hot springs in the United States has gone through three distinct stages of development. First, as sacred bathing and spiritual sites by indigenous First Nation peoples; second, development by early European settlers (circa 1750-1890) who found and used hot springs, later realizing their commercial value by emulating the great spa resorts of Europe; and lastly, from the late 20th century on, as a place of rest, relaxation, and social community. Some historic hot springs establishments did not make a successful transition to the 21st century and are now shuttered, awaiting a buyer.

Thermal mineral springs development in the United States has accelerated significantly in the last decade. Ambitious developments and renovations of historic properties in Colorado, New Mexico and California have been completed. While many commercial hot springs facilities remain basically no-frill operations, a good number have been updated to include upscale lodging components and dedicated Spa facilities that offer a wide variety of therapeutic treatments and wellness services.

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