Spa towns: Bathing in Europe’s historic destinations

After more than a century of decline, Europe’s spa destinations are increasingly home to some of the world’s more attractive, cultural, meetings facilities. Reinvestment and the establishment of associations seeking to breathe new life into these ‘Cafes of Europe’ is giving them something of a renaissance.

Today the European Historic Thermal Towns Association (EHTTA), led by president Guiseppe Bellandi, is setting out to regenerate the café society that existed in the spa towns and cities of Europe.

“The historic thermal towns, or spa towns in our network, have been centres of tourism and healing for centuries,” explains Bellandi. “They have a tradition of welcome which continues to this day, and are renowned for the quality of their architecture, heritage and spa facilities.”

Spa towns make a great deal of sense as homes for prestigious congress and business event venues. The creation of cultural infrastructure helped accommodate this audience in the evenings.

The impact that being accredited as one of the world’s foremost thermal destinations has on attracting congresses and business events is, evidently, significant. The UK city of Bath remains the only destination to achieve UNESCO World Heritage Status as a spa location. It is also one of the UK’s busier conference venues, home to several large international conferences last year, including – unsurprisingly – an international conference on spa heritage. In fact more than 60% of the spa’s visitors come from other countries.

Other meetings destinations wish to follow Bath’s lead, but with no less than 2,000 thermal spa towns in Europe alone, UNESCO is unable to bestow world heritage status upon individual towns as it did with Bath. As a result, the EHTTA is currently seeking UNESCO accreditation for 11 towns as a group titled the Great Spas of Europe. Each destination seeks to gain great exposure as a home for upmarket conferences and events.

Paul Simons, chairman of the Bath Café, is secretary general to the Great Spas of Europe UNESCO project. “The fact remains that spas typically sit in heritage cities with a high-quality range of hotels, with the unique addition of increasingly modern thermal bathing complexes,” he explains. “In Bath for example, the unique thermal waters enable the city to add relaxation packages, unique experiences, and added attractions for partner programmes.”

The SOURCE (Sources of Culture, the Cafés of Europe) project run by the EHTTA, is one of the grandest scale projects so far undertaken by the association, a series of events part funded by a grant from the EU Culture Fund from May 2013 to March 2015 across eight towns in six countries. Each event had local partners, particularly the organisers of the festivals which were taking place at the time of each Café event, and helped to showcase each venue as capable of hosting international events.

Simons hopes the Great Spas of Europe projects will meet with similar success. As he points out: “Spa towns are no longer seen as geriatric holiday homes. Today their image attracts tourism of all kinds, based around reputations built on wellness.”

Whether the accreditation is bestowed on these 11 cities or not, it appears we can expect to see an increasing number of instances of delegates taking the waters after taking their notes.


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