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Sri Lanka's Health Tourism Lures Westerners

In Sri Lanka, the health tourism sector is growing in popularity, especially with Western tourists, who look to treatments, such as the ancient Ayurveda methods of herbal medicines and massage, as a way to recover from their fast paced life back home.

Over 3,000 years of medical tradition in South Asia has drawn on natural ingredients, going into potions and mixtures as medication for the ills of the day. At its core, the Ayurveda method of treatment and health care is based on the use of natural plants, herbs and oils as well as diet.

The word is derived from the ancient Hindu Sanskrit. "Ayuh" meaning life and "veda", meaning science and knowledge.

Richard Pero, an herbalist and therapist in southwestern Sri Lanka, says using the best quality herbs is vital if the treatment is to be successful.

Pero says plants, like humans, are also prone to illness. Only herbs or plants that are considered "healthy" are selected. He chants a special prayer to the plants to ensure maximum results.

Practitioners of Ayurveda say they are drawing on the body's energy sources - nerve impulses, muscles and hormonal changes. The treatment, they say, is to bring about a "balance within the body."

Pushpa Kantha Abhayawardana, a physician at Barberyn Beach Ayurveda Resort, which has been promoting the treatment since the 1980s, says one reason for its popularity with western clients is the treatments cause fewer side effects than western medicines.

"Ayurveda is the best things for healing and it is treating for physical body and even emotional way. In this world now we are using a lot of chemical drugs [but] not in our method, we are using the herbs and they're not giving side effects," Abhayawardana said. "I think that is the best thing."

Besides herbs, often given as tea or a puree, special diets are recommended, as well as yoga and meditation, massage, and hot compresses on key parts of the body.

Across South Asia traditional practices have been incorporated and commercialized by resort hotels, together with health treatments such as spas and are now a key part of the growing health tourism market.

Dileep Mudadenya, Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, says the treatments are designed to go beyond the physical and include the spiritual side - an attractive element for many western visitors.

"Healing methodology has been practiced for more than 2,500 years. What is not known and is that this Ayruveda also [includes] the mind, spirituality to the mind and the body, and some of the hotels have already started doing this and doing it very successfully," said Mudadenya. "So that the healing process starts not only from your external factors but you're internal [ones] also."

The key maladies the Ayurveda method treats include hypertension and stress. Other visitors also turn to the treatment in the hope for a cure from cancer, arthritis, even diseases of the central nervous system.

Abhayawardana defers to Western medicine's strength in surgical treatment but says patients often point to an over-prescription of medications and Western society's lack of focus on spiritual well-being.

"Actually [Western medicine] they have very good technique. That is we couldn't say it's wrong - some surgery we couldn't do it," added Abhayawardana. "But the drug use is the problem. The other hand is the spiritual - the other is the food."

Tilakawathie Igalahewage, a physical therapist at an Ayurveda resort, says from her experience, people in the West appear more stressed due to the West's fast paced life-style.

"They are like machines, the Western people, but I think they haven't time [for] this treatment," she said. "When I was in Japan I thought all these people are working and working and working like that - so I think they need more leisure."

Manik Rodrigo, the resort's executive manager, says, after initial set-backs, the popularity of Ayurveda treatments has grown, especially among European travelers.

"Mainly they feel they are energized and they feel strong and they feel healthy to go back to their countries and they can start going through all the hardships again," said Rodrigo. "They feel the goodness of the medication and they have the confidence that we do a proper job - I think that's the main attraction.

Most visitors to the resorts receiving treatment are women. Julia Sem, a vocational therapist from Germany, says the treatment is just part of the experience.

"I want to improve my health and to relax and clean up my mind," said Sem. "It's important to me because I want to eat better than in Germany - yes and to relax and make a holiday and to learn a new country and culture."

Men are in the minority - just 20 percent of the visitors at the resort are men. But Stefan Chrobot says high work stress lends itself to Ayurveda treatments for recovery.

"Especially for men because if you are in a job where you are under permanent high responsibility and high mental pressure, then I think you would opt for such a possibility to have a retreat and strengthen your body, your soul and to get mental strength and this is very attractive," said Chrobot.

Sri Lanka currently receives over 440,000 visitors a year. The government recently implemented new regulations for all health treatments, including the Ayruveda method. Some concerns have been raised that some Ayurvedic medicines have been found to contain metallic poisons such as lead, mercury or arsenic. Officials say the regulations will ensure quality standards and guarantees for tourists coming to Sri Lanka's health resorts for rejuvenation and recovery.