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Tunisia is the second most popular destination in the world for thalassotherapy after France. How did it manage to achieve this? The answer lies in its implementation of ISO 17680, which has helped to build a healthy tourism sector and boost the economy.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or a medical expert to appreciate or understand the beneficial properties of the sea and seawater. Visit any beach in the summer and you will hear the happy cries of bathers splashing about in the water, see smiling faces, and people generally chilling out, relaxing and having a good time.

Throughout history, from the Romans and beyond to the present day, people seeking health through seawater – thalassotherapy – have been immersing themselves in seaweed baths, covering their bodies in alluvial mud to be cleansed, soothed and revitalized. 

Close shot of a man and woman’s feet as they tread through the water at a hydrotherapy centre.

Botticelli, in his famous painting The Birth of Venus, depicts the goddess of love and beauty emerging fully formed from the sea. There she is, all smooth-skinned and serene, drifting gently towards shore on a giant scallop shell, her lustrous locks flowing in the breeze. She is the embodiment of health, looking for all the world as if she had spent the afternoon at a thalassotherapy resort.

It is no surprise, therefore, that thalassotherapy has become a booming sector in the wellness industry. From the cooler (and more bracing) climes of Ireland to the sun-drenched beaches of the Mediterranean, more and more of us suffering from the stresses and strains of modern life are checking into thalassotherapy centres and resorts along with those seeking relief from rheumatic pains and skin problems. 

But how do you know which resort has the right equipment, qualified practitioners and high-quality, professional treatments? ISO 17680, Tourism and related services – Thalassotherapy – Service requirements, has the answer to this and other questions.

THE CASE OF TUNISIA

ISO 17680 has enabled centres to offer a wide range of local treatments in world-class resorts.

Tunisia, with its year-round warm climate and plethora of sophisticated thalassotherapy resorts, is regarded as one of the most popular wellness destinations in the world. The country has no less than 60 thalassotherapy centres proudly bearing the ISO 17680 stamp, which ensures their quality of care, products and respect for the environment. 

Developed by technical committee ISO/TC 228 for tourism and related services, ISO 17680 establishes requirements for the provision of services in thalassotherapy centres using the marine environment’s beneficial effects with curative or preventive purposes. Its aim is to ensure the respectful use of the thalassotherapy concept, most specifically the principles of hygiene and safety, as well as quality of service and comfort for the customer. Published in 2015, the standard soon became the focus of a countrywide project to improve Tunisia’s spa and wellness centres. On the initiative of INNORPI, the national standards body and member of ISO, Tunisia has been at the forefront of the implementation of ISO 17680 for thalassotherapy centres worldwide. 
By embedding the highest standards in one of its main tourist activities, Tunisia intended to win customers over to its quality services. This it has done in spades, attracting tourists and boosting its economy. In a further sign of its commitment, on 25 December 2019, INNORPI and the ONTH, the country’s national office for balneotherapy and hydrotherapy, signed a partnership agreement for the certification of thalassotherapy centres according to ISO 17680.

Benchmark for quality

Certification could be a game changer, bestowing a Tunisian seal of quality on the thalassic experience for domestic and foreign tourists. By placing quality, safety and customer satisfaction at the core of its requirements, the standard guarantees that suppliers fulfill certain conditions. As such, ISO 17680 can be described as a business-to­-consumer (B2C) type of service standard, having a direct effect on the modalities of service delivery while prioritizing the satisfaction of users and their safety. For establishment owners, the standard thus becomes a badge of excellence that rubber-stamps their adherence to quality of care and products.

The standard also provides a benchmark for an establishment to measure its performance against other service providers in the sector, ensuring fair and transparent competition for the benefit of the consumer. As a result, ISO 17680 has enabled centres to offer a wide range of local treatments in world-class resorts, at a standard that is maintained throughout the country. A quick glance at Trip Advisor suffices to confirm this, with postings that include “a definite must for all”, “incredible service” and “top-class spa”, among others.

luxury golden interior; turkish bath;

Pillars of excellence

It’s no surprise that thalassotherapy has become a booming sector in the wellness industry.

As the demand for health tourism continues to grow, so the bar for quality services will remain high. The travellers of today expect good maintenance of thalassotherapy systems along with close monitoring of seawater content. ISO 17680 is a key tool in this area and enables operators to offer a wider range of services to a broader demographic.

The standard highlights five main areas of focus for local authorities. These are: quality of infrastructure; facilities and equipment; human resources; best practice; and the transportation, storage and handling of raw materials used in thalassotherapy treatments, such as seawater, mud and algae, which are all given particular attention to minimize health risks. The safety of guests is crucial and the standard requires that a set of best practices be put in place to manage potential risks linked to thalassotherapy activities.

Reaping the benefits

Tunisia has a reputation to uphold and the standard is helping it to do just that. No matter which resort consumers choose, the standard of excellence, as laid out in ISO 17680, is maintained throughout the country. As a result, its treasured coastline has become a popular tourist destination. In turn, visitors’ positive perception of thalassotherapy services is expected to spill over on to the country’s tourist sectors, giving each of these an economic boost.

It is clear that, for Tunisia, the benefits of ISO 17680 have been far-reaching. With its state-of-the-art spa centres, impeccable service and high-quality treatments, the country has made a big splash in the wellness sector. Things are poised to change, however, as this year’s health pandemic will impact every sector of the economy.

As an industry that comes into direct, close contact with the public, the health and wellness business, in Tunisia as elsewhere, is likely to suffer as a result, but there’s hope that the quality afforded by ISO standards will help the sector bounce back to full glory over time.

Brightly painted green and red entrance of old hammam public baths in Hammamet, Tunisia.
ISOfocus July/August 2020

Wellness

Our well-being issue provides wellness tips, looks into the benefits of sport and e-bike standards, discusses medical spas and thalassotherapy and provides you with loads of insights in the booming medical tourism industry.

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Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis
Editor-in-Chief of ISOfocus

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