London, 6 April 2021
In this debut issue of VOLT, we look at the rise of Psychedelic Retreats. A brave new branch of wellness tourism, we predict that a combination of more relaxed legislation, growing evidence of the depression-fighting qualities of hallucinogens and a global state of mild to severe PTSD as a bi-product of the pandemic, will create new opportunities for travel and hospitality innovators.
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By Jenny Southan
The world has experienced a collective trauma. Alongside the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a mental health crisis unfolding. People are seeking ways to self-medicate their PTSD, reassessing the meaning of their lives, looking for answers and dealing with grief. These conditions are contributing to a tipping point in the demand for psychedelic plant medicine, which scientists are discovering holds great potential for treating everything from depression to alcohol addiction. For the travel industry, it indicates an opportunity to build hospitality offerings around the taking of these drugs (in safe conditions), in the destinations where they are becoming legal.
Back in 2019, journalist Richard Godwin wrote an article for Condé Nast Traveller in which he contemplated the idea of what a facility for “leaving conventional consciousness” would look like: “A genteel retreat in Somerset, say, or a modernist structure on Ibiza, somewhere between a spa and a sanatorium. There would be a nice organic café, beautiful grounds to stroll around in, no doubt a few crystals and yoga classes, too.”
The groundwork for the “Psychedelic Retreats” trend is now in place, with a number of innovative “mind spas” leading the way with the use of hallucinogens for therapeutic purposes. At the beginning of 2020, actor/entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Lab team went to a retreat in Jamaica to consume cups of psilocybin tea (their experiences were documented on Netflix). This heralded the transition of a former “counter culture” endeavour into the mainstream, packaged as a more sanitised, commercialised and even glamorous experience.
Then, of course, the pandemic hit, putting a long pause on ceremonial gatherings of people for the consumption of plant medicine. This summer, however, innovative purveyors of 21st-century Psychedelic Retreats are resuming business – ready to provide alternative forms of psychological treatment to the millions of people around the world who need it.
“We believe the impact will be almost immediate, and longer lasting than conventional antidepressants.”
Dr Carol Routledge, chief scientific Officer, Small Pharma
New for 2021, the Diaspora Psychedelic Society (DPS) is opening a seaside “sacred medicine facility on the southern coast of Jamaica” this month (April), where people can book in for guided psilocybin journeys with qualified facilitators in a Covid-compliant setting. Stays are from three to ten days and packages include one-on-one coaching, as well as meals and accommodation. Prices range from US$2,500 for one psilocybin session during a three-night stay to US$5,000 for three psilocybin sessions over seven nights.
Founder and director of DPS, Omar Thomas, said in a statement: “We opened this centre in response to the information we were seeing from our psilocybin-supported wellness retreats in Mexico where I've lived, studied, and practiced for the past five years. It became obvious that better options for more affordable, integration-based access and community-based programmes were needed. So we made the decision to evolve beyond the corporate retreat model to create an organisation focused on making the kind of change we wanted to see in the world”. In 2022, the DPS will be breaking ground on a 100% sustainable, long-stay medicine centre and ecovillage (pictured below).
Jamaica, it seems, is quietly becoming a hotbed for Psychedelic Retreats. Also located on the Caribbean island is MycoMeditations, which specialises in “psilocybin-assisted” retreats in a “safe and supportive setting”. Taking place over seven nights, participants also benefit from follow-up phone and video calls to help process the experience. Entry-level all-inclusive “Classic” packages cost US$5,550 per solo participant, while top-level “Concierge” retreats cost US$11,200 for guests checking in alone. Rooms are luxurious, with views of the sea, four-poster beds and marble bathrooms, which makes the purging that bit more bearable. The Atman Retreat in Jamaica is another high-end contender.
In Amsterdam, Synthesis Retreat has courses lined up that include a 12-month “psychedelic practitioner training” programme for wellness professionals. For consumers, retreats incorporate one-to-one coaching, meditation breath-work, and the eating of hallucinogenic psilocybin truffles. Courses last three days to seven weeks. When will they start? A spokesperson for Synthesis told VOLT: “We will only resume our retreats when it is deemed safe to do so. We hope we'll be able to reopen later this year though.”
Over in Costa Rica, the Soltara Healing Center organises traditional ayahuasca ceremonies under the guidance of Peruvian Shipibo healers. For those who don’t know, ayahuasca (also known as “yage”) is consumed as a tea made from two South American plants – the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and a shrub called chacruna (Psychotria viridis), which contains the hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT). All meals, accommodation, medicine, activities and transport is included. (Read an exclusive account of an ayahuasca retreat experience below, in our section called “The Perspective”.)
Although the use of psychedelics is more often than not illegal, there is a trend towards making them socially acceptable. The US cities of Denver, Oakland and Santa Cruz have all decriminalised magic mushrooms in the last few years, while the US state of Oregon became the first state to legalise psilocybin for medical use in November 2020. Now California is on the verge of decriminalising psychedelics (psilocybin, plus MDMA, LSD, ketamine, DMT and mescaline) for personal and therapeutic use.
Further governmental support for exploring psychedelics has come from the US Food & Drug Administration, which recently granted "breakthrough therapy" status to studies of the medical benefits of MDMA and psilocybin. According to a January article in Wired by Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London, “mainstream mental-health care will embrace alternative active substances such as psilocybin” in the coming years.
In the UK, Awakn Life Sciences became the country’s first on-the-high-street provider of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy with the opening of a “Scandinavian chic” clinic in Bristol, in March. Consultant psychiatrist, psychedelic therapist and chief medical officer at Awakn, Dr Ben Sessa, was quoted in The Guardian as saying: “We’re aiming to open 15 to 20 across the UK and EU in the next 24 months.” In total, participants experience 11 sessions, including four that are “drug assisted”.
Also in March 2021, the BBC reported that a six-month study was taking place to test the curative effects of hallucinogenic drug DMT (also known as the “spirit molecule”) on the “depressed brain”, when used in conjunction with talking therapy. Dr Carol Routledge, the chief scientific officer of Small Pharma, the company running the trial, said: "We believe the impact will be almost immediate, and longer lasting than conventional antidepressants.”
According to the “Global Psychedelic Drugs Market 2021-2025” report from ResearchandMarkets: “The psychedelic drugs market is expected to increase due to rising prevalence of depression and mental disorders, regulatory reforms, developments relating to psychedelics, changing perceptions, little severe side effects and cost effectiveness.” Key players include Compass Pathways, MindMed, Numinus Wellness, Johnson & Johnson, Mind Cure Health and Cybin.
Behold Retreats was founded in 2020 by Jonathan de Potter, a former consultant for Accenture and Capco, writes Jenny Southan.
A self-described atheist who always felt “like there was something missing”, De Potter tells VOLT that about five years ago, he took a year off work and travelled around South America. It was in Peru where he did his first ayahuasca ceremony, something that proved to radically alter the course of his life.
About two years ago, De Potter started organising psychedelic retreats for friends but quickly realised there were unmet needs and a business opportunity, especially one that targeted high-powered (often burnt-out) executives.
Although he himself lives in Thailand, De Potter says taking psychedelics there isn’t legal. However, he does tell VOLT that he is “speaking to governments in the region to establish the first legal option”. At the moment, the majority of Behold Retreats take place in Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru and the Netherlands, and it attempts to set itself apart by “really getting to know our clients, one by one”.
The “work” typically begins three weeks before the retreat and continues for three weeks after, with various coaching sessions to complement the drug-taking. Clients get a choice of either joining a group of eight to ten people on a scheduled retreat or doing it solo on a date of their choice.
Why target only wealthy business people? De Potter says: “We want to focus on people who are ‘abundant’ because once these people have done this work, they're going to unlock an incredible amount for other people.”
Behold says on its website that its retreats will help business leaders confront challenges such as overthinking, unhelpful thought patterns, limiting beliefs and disconnected relationships. They are for “executives and CXOs who want to be more authentic, intuitive, and productive than ever, to take their boardroom presence to the next level, and have more free time to spend with family and friends”.
De Potter says that for clients from the UK, the most common drug of choice is psilocybin – “some people are quite afraid of ayahuasca,” he says. The other three types of plant medicine Behold works with are ayahuasca, San Pedro (a South American cactus containing mescaline), and bufo (venom milked from the glands of the rare Bufo Alvarius toad). “That one will really wipe your hard drive clean,” says De Potter.
Where do the retreats take place? De Potter says: “No CEO wants the mosquito jungle shamanic context. We take the time and energy to design experiences that will be fit for purpose for the individual. We did a US$50k retreat for a Texas CEO and his girlfriend in a massive beachfront villa in Tulum, for example. We wouldn’t do it in a hotel without the hotel’s express permission, though.”
In March, Behold Retreats announced a seven-week “immersive life accelerator” programme. It consists of three weeks of guided introspection and preparation, a seven-day guided plant medicine retreat in an “idyllic” location, and an additional three weeks of post-retreat “integration" to “achieve heightened performance, wellbeing and long-lasting psychological growth”.
Life accelerator programme: From US$11,300 per person
47.1 million – people in the US with a mental health condition in 2020 [Source: Mental Health America]
US$115 million – amount London-based life sciences company Compass Pathways recently raised to bring psilocybin treatment for depression to market. [Source: financialnewsmedia.com]
US$6.85 billion – projected value of psychedelic drugs market by 2027 [Source: Data Bridge Market Research]
US$15,000-US$100,000 – price of Behold Retreats programmes for business leaders [Source: Behold Retreats]
Diego Rodriguez (not his real name) describes his experience of going on a psychedelic retreat in Europe…
“Its advocates say ayahuasca, a psychoactive brew made from two Amazonian plants and traditionally used by tribal communities as a sacred medicine, will find you when the time is right. For me that time came in the middle of 2020, when Covid-19 destroyed my work in the travel industry and months of lockdown misery took a severe toll on me emotionally and mentally.
"Completely lost and afraid of the future awaiting me, I read Michael Pollan’s seminal How to Change Your Mind, a rigorous, enthusiastic examination of the science behind psychedelics, and decided a deep-dive into my subconscious could be revelatory.
“Suddenly references to ayahuasca surrounded me – the substance is said to reveal and dismantle long-held internal traumas. Most influential? A friend who has long battled severe mental health issues told me the clarity and comfort he gained from sampling the brew over one weekend retreat was the equivalent of ten years of therapy. When I learned my brother’s ex led discreet ayahuasca retreats in a peaceful rural house near the coast in a sunny Mediterranean country I booked a place immediately.
“It was necessary to travel from my base in the UK because ayahuasca contains DMT, a hallucinogenic, supposedly similar to LSD, that is illegal here. The official stance on ayahuasca is murkier in the country I visited, but the retreat’s founders find that their esoteric ceremonies and the brew’s nebulous qualities can confuse people so they keep word of their activities as quiet as can be. New attendees tend to find out about the retreats through personal recommendations; its organisers share information about forthcoming gatherings via WhatsApp.
“With our group of eight watched over by four guides, our three-night retreat was intimate, supportive and profound. Having already completed a week-long cleanse and after participating in various shamanic ceremonies, we were allowed our first sip of the turf-brown liquid. Syrupy, earthy, herbal and slightly reminiscent of Jagermeister to me, it didn’t go down easy.
“As our guides sang and played music – first softly and then incredibly forcefully, with my senses weirdly heightened I felt I was surrounded by a full orchestral assembly – I retreated into myself as kaleidoscopic fractals emerged around me. Others wept, bellowed, guffawed and trembled as the substance worked through us all with different effects and potencies. Later many of us vomited, or ‘purged’, supposedly a sign that the ayahuasca had disentangled and released some deep-rooted trauma.
“On night two, the medicine hit me far more forcefully. I hyperventilated aggressively, curled in the foetal position and gasping for breath as the guides stroked my back and spoke reassuringly. This was the medicine working, they told me. I was sweating profusely and vomited copiously.
"When a sense of corporal normality returned, I felt… like something wonderful had happened to me. While I lack the vocabulary or conscious awareness to fully explain what that was, I did leave our candlelit den believing something wearisome and burdensome had been released from me.
“Some other attendees later shared fantastical stories of incredible, uplifting visions, or great revelations and moments of powerful serenity. While we all struggled to fully convey, with words, what we had experienced and seen, we were all lighter, noticeably more happy. While that internal harmony is now a greater part of me, it hasn’t meant the subsequent months have been pain-free.
"The stresses of the world still get to me, but there’s been a shift and I still feel ayahuasca has done something powerful and good for me. I will explore the medicine more in future, and if anyone else feels its call I’d recommend the experience wholeheartedly.”
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