The wellness real estate wave has arrived

Concept of various types of insurance

Developers adding more health components to their developments 

By Joseph Wong 

Malaysia’s health and wellness industry has always been a bright shining star when it comes to drawing international tourists into the nation, adding hefty earnings to the country’s economy. 

Malaysia’s medical tourism sector generated RM1.7bil in revenue from 1.22 million healthcare travellers in 2019, said KL Wellness City managing director Datuk Dr Colin Lee, pointing out that the industry has the potential to contribute up to RM7bil to the economy by 2025. 

Considering the multiplier effect on the industries linked to medical tourism, the revenue to be gained is enormous. While the last two years were hampered by the closed borders due to the Covid-19 outbreak, there is no denying that health and wellness have gained greater interest, in the wake of the pandemic. The demand a wellness-related properties has shifted to a higher level as there is now a greater awareness of health precautionary measures.

And this is good news going forward as Malaysia has a pricing advantage. Compared to Singapore, Malaysia’s medical cost is 75% more affordable for the same treatment and about 50% of the doctors are from Malaysia. In addition, the nation is 10% more affordable than Thailand, said Lee.

For developers who have not yet awakened to the revelation, the lesson here is that this tourism driver also leaves an indelible mark on the property industry, as both industries have close ties with each other. 

But it must be stated that whichever development that aims to tap into this wellness real estate must be adaptable and responsive to the local context, said Lee.

“New wellness communities are not formulaic or measured by a checklist that must be followed rigorously. They are guided and inspired by, a set of key elements that improve people’s lives in the relevant context and at the right levels for each unique community.

“What makes life better in one place doesn’t necessarily mean living better somewhere else. Wellness communities respond to the local context with solutions that have the greatest and longest-lasting impact.

“Our medical, wellness, business and retail components in KL Wellness City are designed efficiently with Green Building Index (GBI) and Building Information Modelling (BIM 6D) to manage the finest details and quality proficiently from the start of the construction stage until the operation of the buildings. Thus, reducing the possibility of any additional or unnecessary fees once the buildings are in operation,” said Lee.

To lure back Malaysian medical experts, there must be opportunities to attract them.

To lure back Malaysian medical experts, there must be opportunities to attract them.

 Keeping maintenance costs low

One worry is that the incorporation of all the designs, technology and facilities into such a development will inherently increase the cost of maintenance but Lee pointed out that this may not be the case as technology like BIM can be used in place to keep the cost down.

“We can use the system to monitor the maintenance so that the facilities are well kept, rather than risking them to break down which would cost more to replace. Then the building will be better maintained and well kept. The whole community plays a positive role in the upkeep and the use of technology enhances the efficiency controls,” he said.

Moreover, with Malaysia’s ageing population to hit 5.6 million by 2035, there are spin-offs to be made when tapping into local wellness tourism. Certainly, there is a bright future for residential developments if they follow the universal trend, catering to an increasingly ageing population.

But what is even more interesting is that a substantial number who are also into wellness real estate is the younger generation, who have embraced a healthier living lifestyle. 

“Healthcare is a very specialised industry and some developers are already participating in this sector. Other developers may consider entering this market, perhaps through strategic tie-ups with healthcare providers,” said Real Estate and Housing Developers Association (Rehda) acting president Datuk NK Tong.

He added that the blueprint is a very healthy development as Malaysia continues to open up in line with the post-pandemic recovery.

While many developers in Greater Kuala Lumpur, especially those undertaking township projects, are tying in with wellness centres, up until recently, none has considered venturing into a development as holistic as KL Wellness City.

Most of the bigger and more reputable developers have made health and wellness a component of their townships, looking into providing a variety of facilities and amenities alongside placemaking attractions to build their respective communities.

In contrast, KL Wellness City zooms directly into all aspects that are medical in relation, making it unique among other developments. 

But whether it is on a large scale or a part of townships, it is undeniable that well real estate is a wave of the future. Among those who have jumped onto the wellness bandwagon include Mah Sing Group Bhd (Mah Sing), Eco World Development Group Bhd (EcoWorld) and Sunway Property.

For Mah Sing, their Southville City project in Bangi includes a wellness centre. EcoWorld’s Parque Residences in Eco Sanctuary, Kota Kemuning has a wellness component attached to it. Sunway Property rides on the group’s wider core businesses which include the medical sector as Sunway runs its own hospital. 

Even outside of Greater KL and in East Malaysia, developers have been dipping into the wellness real estate waters. For example, in Melaka, Hatten Land Ltd’s wellness-themed mixed development Satori, which in Japanese means enlightenment, is among the first in the former Portuguese colony. 

In Perak, GreenAcres, located in Bandar Meru Raya, Ipoh caters to independent and mobile seniors. Even Johor’s Iskandar Puteri’s multiple wellness-residential developments and Penang’s RM25bil Wellness City of Dreams has different wellness concepts. Across the South China Sea in Kuching, Sarawak, there is the Eden-on-the-Park, yet another wellness-related development targeted at the older generation.

Traditional medicine is largely ignore by modern medicine practices but it should not be discounted.

Traditional medicine is largely ignored by modern medicine practices but it should not be discounted.

Ageing population

The percentage of the population aged 65 years and over increased from 6.7% in 2019 to 7% in 2020, according to the Department of Statistics. Malaysia anticipates an ageing population of 5.6 million by 2035. According to the report, this translates to 15% of the population being classified as senior citizens.

According to the World Health Organisation, an ageing population is caused by a decline in fertility rates and/or rising life expectancy, and with at least 7% of its population aged 65 and older, whereas an aged nation has 14% or more in that age group. 

“Malaysians’ life expectancy has risen over 20 years since 1957, and the average life expectancy of an average Malaysian at birth now stands at 74.9 years of age,” it says.

The department also projected that the number will increase to 9.6 million, or 23.6% of the population by 2050. Despite this, the number of developers who have projects providing quality care to seniors is limited to a few. 

Agewise, the market is now ready for these types of developments, as the baby-boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, are nearing the retirement age or have retired. 

“Leveraging Malaysia’s leading position in healthcare tourism to not only boost the industry’s contribution to the economy but also to attract Malaysians practising various specialities and subspecialists to return to serve their country.

“The majority of healthcare professionals would not consider coming back to practice as not only our ringgit is low but they find no opportunities to pursue what they are doing now overseas, especially in R&D (research and development),” said Lee.

Wellness real estate takes into consideration amenities like wheelchair accessibility, rest stations for the elderly and walkability.

Wellness real estate takes into consideration amenities like wheelchair accessibility, rest stations for the elderly and walkability.

Design matters

As expected, each and every developer’s concept of a mixed wellness and residential development varies. However, every party involved are on the same page where designing a development with healthcare aspects is concerned.

According to KL Wellness City managing director Datuk Dr Colin Lee, in alignment with wellness real estate, consideration of the following when planning the township would involve three main aspects.

A defined purpose

Sustainable wellness communities are becoming more and more intentional from initial concept planning to purposeful activation. Healthy environments that are mindful of the environment are the new expectation for consumers and residents. These built environments are being proactively envisioned, designed and built on purpose, fueled by an intentional wellness vision that will endure for generations. Wellness is not an afterthought. It is the primary intention of wellness communities.

“Many wellness communities are wellness only in name. Authentic wellness communities are designed on purpose from the beginning and at every stage of development with the intention of improving people’s lives. This is where we design in accordance with a 360 integrated interconnected within KL Wellness City itself; such as direct linkages between building to building and its walkability from all walks of life; a wheelchair friendly environment throughout,” said Lee.

All sizes matter

Consumers are demanding wellness in their built environments. Forward-thinking developers realize the elements of the most transformational wellness communities are scalable —they work at the large scale and the smaller scale.

Wellness can function at any scale, and although solutions vary with the size of the project, the principles of wellness communities are meaningfully applied to guide the development of communities at any scale.

“KL Wellness City, sitting at 26.49 acres, is just the right size to efficiently design and curate the most ideal integrated healthcare and wellness ecosystem, situated within an international zone as well, while conveniently located in a matured neighbourhood of Bukit Jalil,” said Lee.

People first

Wellness communities are becoming truly impactful. Driven by delivering human-centric benefits that enhance the well-being of the people who engage with the community, this, in turn, increases the value and reputation of the real estate for the developer. Starting with the end users’ experience and creating tangible health benefits are the keys.

“We have focused on bricks and mortar for way too long as wellness integration was too expensive. Today, too expensive has been redefined, and the true value is in the tangible, meaningful things that improve people’s lives,” said Lee.

While all these being said, the majority of Malaysia’s current population are in a sandwich generation, where they have parents that need some form of healthcare attention and school going kids. These will grow into a real estate need that requires an environment to cater for the ageing population and to ease the working class from the unnecessary stress while they are at work. Hence, the core foundation of a health and wellness township serving a multi-generation needs to be thoughtfully planned.

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