Quacks Threaten India’s Ayurvedic Spas

KOVALAM BEACH, India ~ Western tourists are flocking to luxury spas devoted to India’s traditional ayurvedic cures, but lack of regulation has brought a flood of quacks into the industry.

Kerala state, with its coconut palm-fringed coast, has been the most enthusiastic promoter of ayurveda, or long-life science, and lays claim to being India’s health capital.

Hundreds of practitioners have set up shop here to take advantage of the growing popularity of the ancient healing medicine, which uses massage and special potions.

Just about every self-respecting hotel boasts a spa and ayurvedic massages.

But experienced providers warn that untrained newcomers risk causing more harm than good.

“The ayurveda practiced in the majority of the resorts in the name of health tourism is not of quality,” said Vinod Chandran, who runs a licensed ayurveda hospital in the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram.

Kovalam beach resort lies at the southernmost tip of India and is one of the best-known seafronts in India – with a string of hotels ranging from the big five-star chains to simple huts.

Giant billboards advertise miracle cures and rejuvenation through ayurveda for as little as US$50.

“Many doctors can’t speak proper English or communicate with their clients, so they are not able to diagnose the real health problems of the patients,” said Chandran.

Ayurveda operates on the principle of balancing the body’s “dosha,” a type of mind and body combination, similar to the Greek concept of humours.

Kerala has been aggressively marketing ayurveda abroad over the past decade with roadshows in Europe and the Middle East, in its bid to position itself as a unique destination.

Almost 350,000 foreigners visited Kerala in 2005, where tourism is growing faster than anywhere else in the world, at 11 percent a year, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. That raked in $1.7 billion of revenue.

Some 7,000 private and 500 government clinics and hospitals provide the treatments today, as well as 59 accredited ayurvedic spa resorts, said Kerala’s Association of Ayurvedic Hospitals.

But established resort owners say the accreditation procedures are not a guarantee of proper treatment.

“Anybody can start an ayurvedic resort by registering the institution in the village council and hiring an ayurvedic doctor temporarily,” said Poly Matthew, who runs the 17-year-old Somatheeram resort in Poovar town, outside the capital.

“Quacks will kill the industry. The government should set up strict norms for accreditation,” said Matthew.

Another ayurvedic doctor, Adzeena Salim, said that most of the medical texts were written in ancient Sanskrit, making it difficult for locals to understand the complexities or for foreigners even to recognize an authentic experience.

Some resorts invent their own methods, said Salim, who also works in Poovar, at the Travancore Heritage Resort.

“They fake treatment procedures and methods. Doctors working in private resorts were forced to follow the methods dictated by the resort owners,” Salim said.

“They don’t keep case histories or provide the details for the treatment procedures to the tourists.”

At least one resort in Kovalam is entangled in a major legal dispute with an Austrian woman who filed a complaint with police alleging that she spent some $40,000 for ayurvedic care during two stays but was unhappy with the results.

The resort, in turn, is trying to collect further funds from the tourist, with its owner saying she did not disclose her history of mental illness and caused tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage to furnishings.

The state said it planned to set up committees to periodically inspect ayurvedic spas in the state.

“Ayurveda is a unique icon of Kerala. But we are aware that some illegal ayurvedic resorts are operating in the state,” state tourism minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said.

The government also plans to introduce a bill in the next state assembly session, beginning next month, to better regulate health tourism and ayurveda, he said.

But in the meantime, small operators such as Dinakar Balan, who helped out in a spa for five years before opening his own place, continue to offer their services to tourists who want to sample ayurveda on the cheap.

“You may think that foreign tourists are lavish with money. No, they count even a penny,” said Balan, who offers oil massages for about $10 out of three rooms on a crowded, narrow lane in Kovalam.

“If you say I’m cheating tourists, it’s not fair. I make a living.”

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