Health tourism with tradition: Germans in “Kur”

“Ist zur Kur” – if you are interested in German language and culture, this skid of Hanns Dieter Hüsch, a brilliant wordsmith and satirist, is worth listening to. It describes the growingly desperate attempt to solve a customer service issue, unsuccessful because every one of the people involved is currently “drinking the waters”, or in other words: Has a stay at a health spa.

Spa retreats at the seaside or in a sweet health resort are not uncommon in England, either. The Germans (like many other continental Europeans) have taken it a huge step further, though. We we will use the word “Kur” throughout this article because there is no equal term in English. It stands for much more than just a spa visit or a relaxing wellness weekend. While it might mean serious treatment for rehab or actual recovery from serious illness or accidents, a Kur is also a retreat from everyday life in one of 350 dedicated health resorts. Treatments might address Asthma, stress and depression, indisgestion or back pain, high or low blood pressure, general fatigue or weakness.

“You haven’t been in Kur for 10 years”, a GP might say. “You could consider one to feel better.”

Hanns Dieter Hüsch’s struggle to reach the right person on the phone is exaggerated, but it is so very funny because pretty much everyone in Germany has shared his experience at some point. “Sorry, your contact person will we back in four weeks, he is in Kur.

Holistic healthcare

To some, the idea of paying for pricy (and lengthy) treatments like this might sound wasteful. Many patients, on the other side, find themselves strengthened, invigorated, healthier and more productive. Health professional and carers support this view: At times it might be more cost efficient to prevent illness before it becomes a serious threat – and surely when recovering from any ailment, it is better to build up strength and resilience before going back to normal life.

My father, a now retired GP for many decades, always stressed the importance of the simple things for a healthy life. Besides caring for many regular patients in his surgery, he also worked as a “Kurarzt”, guiding health visitors from all parts of Germany through their spa treatments in his seaside hometown. “What many of them need”, he used to say, “is a hand on the shoulder and the words: Look after yourself, you deserve it.”

Much of the efficiency of spa treatments might actually be down to this holistic approach: Taking a break from busy life, having time to breathe, focus on the own body and mind, self care, good food, physical exercise in beautiful surrounding. Yet that’s not all of it. The healing powers of hot springs, mineralised water or mud baths were already known to the ancient Romans, who build baths all over Europe. But even before their conquests, people living closer to nature were well aware of natural remedies to heal all kinds of ailments.

In Germany, strict rules define whether a town or city can call itself “Kurort” (spa location). The most important one is the quality of natural treatments available: “Luftkurorte” offer great air and climate, “Soleheilbäder” offer special water rich in minerals and salt and “Moorheilbäder” feature an abundance of resources for mud baths and skin treatments. These treatments are embedded in a comprehensive setting of medical and wellness facilities – traditional spa towns always have a “Kurpark” (an extensive park to stroll and relax) and all kinds of cultural events as well. Beautiful landscape is another trait of these locations.

From the mountains to the sea

All over Germany, you will find places with the word “Bad” in their name: Bad Lausick, Bad Segeberg, Bad Homburg, Bad Reichenhall… more than 300 of them. Every one of these places has at some point been an officially acknowledged “Kurort”, an official title that is hard to achieve and carries huge traditional values.

The towns Bad Ems and Bad Kissingen have just been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites, together with the city of Baden-Baden – and yes, that is its real name. Among the new Heritage Sites is also the English city of Bath, and for the very same reasons: It is a historical, well preserved centre of health and wellness, dating back two millenia to Roman settlements.

In the North of Germany, a huge number of “Seebäder” (coastal spas) attract patients and health tourists alike. The sea is a natural healer, offering healthy air, water full of minerals and all kinds of sludge and mud for skin treatments. The trend to visit the coast to gain better health started in the late 18th century in England, with Brighton being one of the biggest magnets of its time. The first German Seebad was founded in 1793 in Heiligendamm, close to Bad Doberan at the Baltic coast. In 1797 the island of Norderney followed in its footsteps, this time at the North Sea coast. In the following years the island of Langeoog followed, and soon most of the coastal towns and islands discovered health tourism as a new way of bringing income to fishing villages that often turned into very posh holiday resorts in the following centuries.

Talking about the healing qualities of water, here is another quintessentially German thing: The philosophy of “Water doctor” Sebastian Kneipp. The Bavarian priest discovered cold baths as a way to heal himself when suffering from tuberculosis in the 19th century. Whether or not this steep claim is true: Kneipp discovered that hot and cold water baths and mild physical activity involving walking in ice cold water or moving barefoot in wet grass had an energizing effect and helped the wellbeing of his patients. While working as a priest, he developed a whole concept of treatments that is today famous throughout Germany as “Kneippkur”.

A growing market

Tourism industry in times of demographic changes and aging populations meets the medical profession: A market worth 30 billion (!) Euro per year in Germany alone, creating 400,000 jobs while accounting for 30 per cent of all hotel stays in the country. This economical success has just as much tradition as the “Kur” itself: Throughout the 19th and 20th century, taking a health holiday was common among aristocrats and wealthy individuals. Politicians and businessmen met in posh spa towns not only to relax and feel better, but also to talk business and make connections in an exclusive surrounding.

Russian leader Stalin, for example, used to send his closest comrades across Europe on “Kur” and made the idea popular for regular people in the Soviet Union as well – just like Adolf Hitler did in Germany, creating a spa and holiday industry for everyday people. As nice and friendly as this sounds was it of course also a tool of social control and a reward system for those most loyal to the government.

Today, the aging population in the wealthy parts of the world turns health tourism into a growing market. Besides that, the alternative and esoteric-”spiritual” community creates a whole range of new trends around the world: Meditation retreats, spiritual get-togethers, Yoga and Tai Chi in often luxurious surroundings. Under the guise of soul searching and a quest for meaning in a modern world, this often is mainly a way of exclusive and sometimes pretentious “pampering” for a well paying clientele.

To make sure that the German Kur remains reliable and serious business, the German health resorts are connected in a proper association: The “Deutscher Heilbäderverband” (Association of German Spa Towns). Their website gives a detailed overview of medical treatments and quality standards in Germany.

It doesn’t mention one small detail: The “Kurschatten” (which roughly translates to “spa shadow”). This special person is a fellow patient, never a local or a staff member, who grows into a close friend with or without benefits. It’s widely accepted that a Kur is a break from everything in life and an exceptional time, which also means that “what happens in Kur, stays in Kur”. Unlike in Vegas, there’s no Church of Elvis and no chance to elope or get married overnight, so at the end of the day, a Kurschatten-relationship usually remains pretty innocent.

If this article makes you want to have a closer look at German spa culture, here is a handy list of locations and treatments.

Everybody is welcome – but unlike Germans who might get their stay financed via their health insurance, you probably have to pay yourself. It sure is worth it!

Write a comment