1 Introduction

All people need beauty as they need bread, places to play and pray where nature can heal and give strength to body and soul. (John Muir 1912, p. 256)

The COVID-19 pandemic has been linked with an intensification of mental health challenges across the globe, affecting all sectors of society and a range of mental disorders including post-traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, anxiety, functional exhaustion or burnout, depression, and somatization (Ertem et al. 2020; Real-Ramírez et al. 2020). A recent survey (undertaken from February to March 2021) for the World Economic Forum regarding the effects of the pandemic on health, economic, and behavioral patterns, which surveyed more than 21,000 adults worldwide under the age of 75, found that 45% of survey participants perceived a deterioration in their mental health (IPSOS 2021). Chile was the second highest rated among the 30 countries included in the survey in terms of mental health declines, surpassed only by Turkey. In total, 56% of Chilean participants perceived that their mental health had declined during the COVID-19 pandemic. Another study, by Urzúa et al. (2020), which surveyed Chilean primary healthcare workers (20% of the sample, n = 125) and secondary care workers (80% of the sample), showed that most of them reported some degree of symptoms of anxiety (74%), distress (56%), depression (66%), and insomnia (65%). These percentages far exceeded the results of other studies outside the pandemic context.

To cope with the stress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and other mental health stressors, individuals must draw on a range of protective elements, individual traits, and healthy mechanisms to help manage the adversity they experience and find ways to respond, adapt and even thrive as time goes on. This capacity is referred to as psychological resilience in individuals and families (Ingulli and Lindbloom 2013; Liu et al. 2017; Satici 2016; Timmerman 1981), and social resilience in communities and societies (Adger 2000; Berkes and Ross 2013; Berkes et al. 2002). Although different sets of principles apply to each of these groups, researchers have recognized an interrelationship between individual and community resilience capacity (Berkes and Ross 2013; Berkes et al. 2002). Transformations that enhance psychological resilience at the individual and family levels can positively affect resilience at the community and societal levels (Berkes and Ross 2013).

In Chile, increasing psychological and social resilience capacity is particularly important. Urbanization and associated lifestyle changes, including the dominance of automobile use, availability and proximity of highly processed, calorie dense foods, increased reliance on computers, televisions, and other technology, and growing use of labor-saving appliances in home and work settings, have all been linked with declines in daily physical activity and rise of sedentary lifestyles (Al-Nuaim et al. 2012; Carrillo-Larco et al. 2016). This lifestyle transformation has been increasingly linked to chronic medical conditions and diseases, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, high glucose blood levels, increased lipids, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, as well as increased risk of contracting many contagious diseases including COVID-19 (Al-Nuaim et al. 2012; Carrillo-Larco et al. 2016; Ramírez and Agredo 2012; Urzúa et al. 2020). In Chile, sedentary lifestyles are common across all age groups within the population, with insufficient levels of physical activity for one in every five Chilean adults (Cristi-Montero and Rodríguez 2014; Pan American Health Organization and World Health Organization 2016). Obesity affects more than 60% of the population between 15 and 64 years of age (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations & Pan American Health Organization, 2017), with close to 10% of all children under 5 years of age overweight. Green spaces are in short supply in Chilean cities and considered critical public infrastructure for supporting urban health.

Urbanization is also linked with a range of mental health illnesses and disorders attributed to stressors arising from the influence of overcrowding, pollution, higher levels of violence, and lower levels of social support (Marzukhi et al. 2020; Núñez-González et al. 2020; Srivastava 2009; Pan American Health Organization and World Health Organization 2016). Some of the more prevalent illnesses include substance abuse, alcoholism, depression, alienation, anxiety, and severe mental disorders (Srivastava 2009). Chile faces one of the highest rates of prevalence of disease from psychiatric illnesses (23.2%) in the world (Vicente et al. 2016). Mental health disorders (anxiety, depression, substance abuse and dependence, disruptive disorders, attention-deficit, hyperactivity disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder) are widespread in Chile; they have been the most frequent reasons for medically prescribed leave in the country for more than a decade (Pan American Health Organization and World Health Organization 2016). Researchers estimate that 36% of Chileans 15 years of age and older have experienced one or more psychiatric disorders, and one in five Chileans have experienced disorders within the past 6 months (Vicente et al. 2016). Moreover, almost 40% of Chileans have direct exposure with some form of trauma, with the most common traumas experienced including witnessing the injury or death of other persons, experiencing a sudden accident or injury, or being the victim of physical assault (Zlotnick et al. 2006).

This chapter focuses on the potential of nature to contribute to human mental health and resilience. We propose that current conservation strategies based on public and private protected areas (PAs) and even urban and semi-urban parks, can effectively contribute to human health by supporting public health policies and innovations related to tourism development through programs and infrastructure that contribute to well-being. The 107 Protected Areas (PAs) of Chile’s national system of protected natural areas (SNASPE) offer important infrastructure to support these outcomes, including intentionally designed trails and mindfulness programs within PAs that apply practices to support human and nature interconnectedness. These installations and programs can contribute to all levels of resilience, public health, and human well-being. The following sections illustrate our proposal. We begin with a brief review of the health benefits attributed to spending time in nature and developing direct relationships with nature. Next, we share some of the practices and traditions being employed around the world to purposefully rebuild human connections with nature. Then, we delve into the CONAF Nature Bathing initiative as an example of a transformative program designed to strengthen the role of PAs as public health infrastructure and help visitors build resilience and stronger mental and physical health while rediscovering their interconnectedness with nature. This chapter concludes with a list of next steps, including possible connections between SNASPE PAs, nature bathing, and wellness tourism.

2 Theoretical Constructs

2.1 Health Benefits of Time in Nature/Relationships with Nature

Reconnecting our urban communities with nature, through more direct relationships with public and private protected areas (PAs), and even urban and semi-urban parks, may help contribute to improving mental health and resilience. A growing body of evidence has allowed us to become aware and more confident that it is not only a feeling of well-being that we have by immersion through sensory contact in nature, but also actual physiological, emotional, and mental health benefits that have been measured and monitored by various studies (Lemieux et al. 2016; Newton 2007; Puhakka et al. 2017; Taff et al. 2019; Thomsen et al. 2018; Townsend and Henderson-Wilson 2016; UK Sustainable Development Commission 2008). Exposure to nature has been linked with providing a number of physical fitness and wellness benefits, or ecosystem services, including better general health, reduced blood pressure and pulse rate, increased lifespans, and reduced exposure to pollution (Mitchell and Popham 2007, 2008; Pretty et al. 2007; Sandifer et al. 2015; Wells et al. 2007). Also, nature-based recreation and leisure experiences have been associated with a range of emotional and psychological ecosystem services, leading to mental wellness outcomes, including restorative benefits (Hartig et al. 1997; Kaplan 1995) stress reduction (Morita et al. 2007; Ulrich et al. 1991), and the improvement of cognition and affect for people suffering from depression (Berman et al. 2012; McMahan and Estes 2015; Sandifer et al. 2015). Nature has also been linked with ecosystem services contributing to social well-being. For example, Sandifer et al. (2015) found evidence of increased social interactions, reduced aggression, positive intercultural and interracial interactions, and enhanced social support and cohesion from time in nature.

Even relatively short immersive experiences in nature have been shown to have positive impacts on mental health. For example, Mayer et al. (2009) observed that a 15-minute nature walk increased participants’ connection to nature, awareness of their immediate environment, level of attention, positive emotions, and their capacity for self-reflection. In addition to general restorative effects (Kaplan 1993; Kaplan 1995; Ulrich et al. 1991), researchers have suggested that exposure to nature has buffering, or stabilizing, effects for those who were not stressed prior to exposure, and positive benefits for self-regulation and the ability to control impulses (Beute and De Kort 2014). Alliances between PAs, parks, and other sectors like healthcare and tourism, can provide new mechanisms and therapies to help people and communities increase psychological resilience, improve connections between people and nature, and foster a more tangible social valuation of the importance of these special places and the role they play in improving our well-being.

2.2 Shinrin Yoku

The concept of Shinrin Yoku, sometimes referred to as forest bathing, has been gaining worldwide attention since it was established by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in 1982. Since then, a variety of agencies and organizations have begun to develop infrastructure, programming, and practice that follow the Shinrin Yoku concept, particularly in Europe, Asia, and North America, and more recently in Latin America (Li 2018; Miyazaki 2018). Initially, the concept of Shinrin Yoku was created as a promotional campaign for people to visit the beautiful forests of Japan. However, inspired by the realization that individuals somehow feel better when surrounded by nature, several scientists began studying the psychological and physiological benefits of nature—particularly forests—for human health and well-being (Miyazaki 2018).

Shinrin Yoku refers to an alternative form of medicine wherein one fully engages with nature through their senses (Miyazaki 2018), and has been defined as, “making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest: a process intended to improve an individual’s state of mental and physical relaxation” (Park et al. 2010, p. 18). Song et al. (2016) described the aim of Shinrin Yoku as being to, “induce preventive medical effects to improve weakened immune function and prevent diseases by achieving a state of physiological relaxation through exposure to forest-origin stimuli” (p. 2). Song et al. (2017) later described how the effectiveness of Shinrin Yoku as a preventive or alternative therapy has been demonstrated through research.

Researchers have identified several explanations for forest bathing’s potential to promote good health and prevent the onset of disease (Ohtsuka et al. 1998; Antonelli et al. 2019). For example, Li et al. (2009) determined that phytoncides (aromatic volatile substances derived from trees), in combination with decreased stress hormone levels, likely play a role in increasing the body’s natural production of killer cells (white blood cells with enzymes that kill tumor cells or virus-infected cells). Song et al. (2017) found that for office workers who participated in their study, a day-long forest therapy session could produce a sustained decrease in systolic and diastolic blood pressure that lasted up to 5 days. Likewise, in their study of 24 forests in Japan, Park et al. (2010) found that walking through and viewing forests lowered cortisol, pulse rate, and blood pressure, heightened parasympathetic nerve activity (ability to relax), and lowered sympathetic nerve activity (fight or flight response). Psychological effects of Shinrin Yoku have also been identified. For example, Morita et al. (2007) found forest bathing to be an effective stress reduction method, especially among participants experiencing chronic stress.

Research has also demonstrated numerous health benefits associated with forest exposure, in general. Although these studies are not specific to Shinrin Yoku, they represent benefits that would apply to forest bathing programs. For example, López-Pousa et al. (2015) found that participants with fibromyalgia reported fewer days with perceived pain and insomnia, and more days of wellness, after participating in walks through a mature forest. Moreover, Lee and Lee (2014) compared forest walking to city walking to determine whether the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of forest environments are superior to those of city environments and found significant differences between the two. It was found that forest walking improved arterial stiffness and pulmonary function for the participant group of elderly Korean women in comparison to city walking.

2.3 Grounding

The concept of grounding (also known as earthing) refers to the benefits of direct body contact with the Earth’s natural electric charge (Menigoz et al. 2020). The process of grounding focuses on restoring an electric connection to the Earth, which proponents consider having been lost over time for many people because of increasingly urban, modern lifestyles, and technologies. Increased urbanization and usage of indoor entertainment alternatives (e.g., television, computers, electronic gaming devices) tend to reduce peoples’ time outside in natural environments. Additionally, recent changes in the raw materials used for apparel, from shoes that were primarily constructed from traditional materials like leather and wood to shoes that are constructed from synthetic materials with more insulated soles of rubber and plastics, have augmented the barriers between the human body and the Earth’s ground (Gruebner et al. 2017). Grounding theorists propose that these changes in lifestyle may challenge our immune systems. For example, Oschman et al. (2015) have proposed that increasing human disconnection from the Earth may be an important and overlooked contributor to the global rise in non-communicable, inflammatory-related chronic diseases. Selye (1984) described how built-up inflammation, that grounding may help to offset, can hinder the movement of antioxidants and regenerative cells and result in incomplete cellular repair. This can cause an inflammatory cycle that can persist for a long period of time, eventually promoting the development of chronic diseases.

Research on grounding began in the late ninetieth century, when a back-to-nature movement in Germany claimed many health benefits from being barefoot outdoors, even in cold weather. Chevalier et al. (2012) recount that in the 1920s, after learning of the practices and beliefs of some of his patients, George Starr White, M.D., investigated the practice of sleeping grounded, which referred to sleeping on the ground or sleeping connected to the ground through copper water, gas, or even radiator pipes. He reported improved sleeping using these techniques, though these ideas never caught on in mainstream society (Chevalier et al. 2012).

In recent years, grounding research has regained momentum. Modern research considers how the surface of the Earth may be affected electrically by lightning strikes, solar radiation, and other atmospheric dynamics, and that there exist possible relationships between Earth’s electrical charge and human health. Their work builds on modern knowledge about the ground and bodies of water, which have a continuously renewed supply of subatomic particles called free electrons that give the Earth a natural negative electric charge (Menigoz et al. 2020), and a parallel knowledge of the human body, with its own charge or electrical system at the cellular level. Grounding theorists propose that the grounding of the human body keeps it at the natural electrical potential (voltage) of the Earth. They hypothesize that connecting the body to the Earth enables free electrons from the Earth’s surface to spread over—and into—the body, where they can have antioxidant effects (Oschman et al. 2015).

Some recent studies support these theories (Chevalier et al. 2012; Menigoz et al. 2020; Oschman et al. 2015). For example, Menigoz et al. (2020) suggested that physical contact with the Earth’s natural charge has a stabilizing effect, reduces inflammation, and improves blood flow. Although research evidence regarding the benefits of grounding is still developing, at least 20 studies to date have reported benefits to having a grounded versus ungrounded body, such as increased energy, better sleep, and reduced pain and stress (Brown and Chevalier 2015; Chevalier et al. 2012; Menigoz et al. 2020; Oschman et al. 2015). The physiological effects of grounding have perhaps most commonly been measured by cortisol levels and subjective information about sleep, pain, and stress (Ghaly and Teplitz 2004). However, some studies have suggested measurable biological effects, such as differences in white blood cell concentrations, cytokines, and inflammatory responses (Oschman et al. 2015).

Concerns over the health risks associated with being disconnected to the Earth align closely with the benefits of Shinrin Yoku, as outlined above. Initiatives related to these concepts in places across the world inspired CONAF to develop similar initiatives that combine grounding with forest bathing with the goal of providing visitors opportunities to re-establish their connections with the Earth and experience the benefits associated with exposure to nature. In addition to physiological and health benefits, these programs emphasize the alignment between grounding, forest bathing, and Chilean culture and traditions.

2.4 Relation of Shinrin Yoku and Grounding, to Chilean Culture and Traditions

The concepts and practices of Shinrin Yoku and grounding complement many Indigenous peoples’ worldviews, in that they view nature and humans as a single inter-connected entity. Earth-based spirituality is the oldest recorded religious worldview and the central tenet of the South American Pachamama cosmovision (Crane-Seeber and Crane 2010). Most Andean Indigenous groups view the Earth as a mother both for humans and for other beings with whom they share a fraternal relation. For example, in both Indigenous and Chilean popular culture, the Earth is often referred to as pachamamá. Pacha derives from an Aymara and Quechua term, meaning earth, or world, or universe. Mamá, derives from mother. Thus, pachamamá, as understood by the Quechua and Aymara communities, and other Andean ethnic groups that have received Quechua-Aymara influences, refers to the concept of the Earth as a mother, and as a deity of sorts. Similarly, the Mapuche people of Chile refer to mother Earth in their language (mapudungún) as ñuke mapu. This conceptualization of the Earth does not refer to the soil, the geological Earth, or the planet Earth, but rather is more encompassing in scope. Unlike the pachamamá, the ñuke mapu is not considered a deity; instead, within Mapuche religious beliefs she is considered the representation of the Mapuche world in the cosmography and the interaction of the Mapuche people within it.

The harmonious, spiritual, and respectful relationship with nature reflected within the concepts of pachamamá and ñuke mapu is central for many belief systems and is common in the worldview of Indigenous peoples. For example, within the Mapuche worldview, the term küme mogen signifies a life that is lived with balance between society, nature, and spirituality, and describes this life as the foundation of human existence, often referred to as buen vivir (in Spanish), or good living (in English). Similar concepts are found within the conscience and culture of most—if not all—Indigenous peoples (Tórtora Aravena 2021). The küme mogen is sustained by the itro fill mogen, a concept that has been maintained for centuries within the Mapuche cosmovision that refers to a synchronization between all forms of life and being, and considers all as being part of the same, without exception (Weke 2017). Itro fill mogen posits that is referred to as itro fill mogen, as the recognition and contemplation of this synchronization may provide healing by awakening or activating the senses and connecting them with life and the vibrations of nature.

There is ample evidence of the efforts made by post-Columbian forces to impose western-based spirituality onto Andean and Latin American Indigenous and popular culture. However, there has been a growing recognition of the cultural permanence of Earth-based spiritual beliefs over the last decade, especially in light of a rising social movement oriented around the concept of buen vivir, and a fundamental sense of harmony between humans and nature (Coscieme et al. 2020; Ednie et al. 2020; Gudynas 2011; Nicoletti and Barelli 2019; Villavicencio Calzadilla and Kotzé 2018). As a social movement, buen vivir encompasses many of the same tenets as are found in Indigenous cosmovision. For example, Walsh (2010) noted, “In its most general sense, buen vivir denotes, organizes, and constructs a system of knowledge and living based on the communion of humans and nature and on the spatial-temporal-harmonious totality of existence” (p. 18). Beginning in Bolivia and Ecuador, contemporary popular culture manifestations of buen vivir have been adopted by other South American cultures and countries, including Brazil, Columbia, Peru, and Chile. These manifestations, also driven through social movements, have contributed to the proposal of political and economic alternatives to mainstream neoliberal development theory, with a focus on agrarian, collective, and sustainable use of natural resources. Importantly, they posit a more direct connection between nature and human well-being, and align strongly with ecological concerns, Indigenous worldviews, and rights (Altmann 2014; Bressa Florentin 2019; Bruckmann 2010; Gudynas 2011; Merino 2016).

As such, buen vivir has begun to inform and permeate wide-ranging aspects of modern Andean life and culture, including the CONAF Nature Bathing program, which draws on a range of concepts, including Shinrin Yoku, grounding, and buen vivir, to immerse and connect visitor consciousness and senses with nature. With respect to visitor consciousness, CONAF’s Nature Bathing program is oriented around the understanding that we are part of nature and that our mutual relationship is one of respect and reciprocal benefit for all forms of life. From a sensory standpoint, the program employs a multiverse—or pluriverse—lens, seeking to provoke increased recognition of our coexistence with all other living beings and the plural meanings and connotations that this implies.

3 Applying Theoretical Constructs in Chile

3.1 Implementation of CONAF Nature Bathing in Chilean Protected Areas

Intrigued by growing international interest about the health benefits associated with Forest Bathing, in 2016 CONAF began to explore how such programs might further the agency’s goals to benefit local communities, promote healthy living habits, provide universally accessible and socially inclusive recreation opportunities, and build partnerships with communities, focusing first on developing ideas and internal communication within the agency and its Corp of administrators, rangers, and professionals. Early on, agreement was reached to develop the concept of nature bathing—as opposed to forest bathing—to reflect the importance and potential for connecting with the diverse range of Chilean ecosystems protected through SNASPE. SNASPE’s 107 PAs extend well beyond forests, to include grasslands, pampas, deserts, glacial ice fields, ocean shoreline, and much more.

The first CONAF Nature Bathing activities occurred in 2018 through a combination of in-house and partnership programs. For example, a key partnership for CONAF has been the European Forest Therapy Institute (FTI). FTI runs a scholarship program to train and certify park rangers to guide forest bathing programs, including two CONAF rangers based in the Coquimbo Región of Chile. Another initial partnership program was developed with SENAMA, the Chilean National Service for the Elderly. This partnership focused on strengthening SENAMA’s Vive tu Naturaleza (Live your Nature) program, which helps older adults focus on active and positive aging. CONAF’s Nature Bathing activities were added as one of three lines of action within the existing Vive tu Naturaleza program.

In 2019, after these initial partner programs, CONAF began to work toward a more systematic integration of nature bathing practices within SNASPE PAs through their Nature for Everyone program by developing broader technical tools and training for its park ranger staff. Some of the technical tools were aimed at the regional offices of CONAF and focused on efforts to standardize program implementation in their respective PAs. Others were geared toward directly assisting PA visitors who had a current interest in these practices. Through these programs, CONAF’s nature bathing practices took on their modern form, which involves providing park visitors with a 2–3-hour immersive experience in the nature of a PA. Park rangers facilitate the opportunity for visitors to activate their senses and immerse themselves in nature using a number of reflection and attentive meditation (mindfulness) practices (Lazo et al. 2021). During 2019, 50 park rangers were trained through the Bosques Para Ti (Forests for You) program, a non-profit group with a variety of PA and land management partners. CONAF’s involvement in leadership training quickly grew, and CONAF staff eventually began leading workshops in partnership with other agencies. CONAF also began promoting nature bathing programs along with other efforts related to nature accessibility and social inclusion within Chile and the larger Latin American region. A wide variety of strategies and outlets were employed, including the support of several local and regional media outlets for radio and TV interviews, as well as dissemination of information through national and international magazines and social media.

During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, virtual meetings and events were held to continue training efforts as well as promote CONAF’s work in universal accessibility, social inclusion, and nature bathing. These events included seminars, workshops, talks, and continuing training courses for park rangers. In addition, CONAF, and the former Forest Therapy Institute, organized the American Congress on Health Practices Associated with Nature. The congress was attended by 2000 people and 26 international experts from around the world, including the United States, Spain, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Portugal, South Africa, Peru, Awajun Nation (Amazon Peru), Wampis Naw Peru, Ireland, and Brazil. As of December 2021, CONAF’s Nature Bathing program had applied Shinrin Yoku and grounding techniques within 21 of its PAs. A total of 100 park rangers had received basic training and acquired Nature Bathing program facilitation techniques.

3.2 Components of CONAF Nature Bathing Programs Within Chile’s Protected Areas

Specific locations within PAs have been designated as nature bathing sites and trails, selected for their potential to foster meaningful experiences and connections with nature. These sites often include qualities known to align with visitor preferences, like native forests, streams, and places with the presence of a variety of birds (Lazo et al. 2021). The trails are often developed to be ADA accessible and include basic, natural infrastructure to facilitate the Nature Baths experience (tree stumps as stools, etc.). CONAF’s rangers are trained to implement Nature Bathing programs that typically consist of four steps (Fig. 16.1), with program components ranging from experience preparation to post-experience reflection (Lazo et al. 2021).

Fig. 16.1
A four-step nature bathing process diagram. The steps are as follows. Begin through conscious breathing, set your senses in motion, contemplate and fully connect with nature, and end with a mindful activity.

The four-step CONAF Nature Bathing process

Step 1 focuses on conscious breathing to help participants prepare their bodies and minds to fully absorb the nature bathing experience. Forest rangers lead participants in a conscious breathing exercise, giving them a few moments to reflect on their breathing and awaken their senses to nature.

Step 2 sets the experiential program in motion. Participants begin to move through nature, stopping in places they find attractive to engage their senses with the environment. By focusing their minds on experiencing nature with a particular sense, acuity is activated, and participants begin to take presence of small details and elements that may not have been initially noticed. Participants are encouraged to take their time and engage with as many senses as they are able, noting distinctive color variations, differences in texture, sound and vibrations, tastes of edible plants, and smells generated by rubbing and touching natural elements.

Step 3 involves continuing movement through nature, focusing on enhancing participants’ contemplation of and connection (emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical) with nature. Similar to Step 2, participants are encouraged to find places to stop and purposely engage their senses with natural elements. They are encouraged to focus on Here and Now, letting themselves grow in awareness that they are part of nature. This step can also include holding natural elements and/or expressing their connections with nature through art. If participants are in a group, they are encouraged to occasionally engage in quiet conversation about their experiences and observations.

Step 4 involves a purposeful end to the nature bathing experience. Sometimes participants are encouraged to draw a line, choose the last tree along a nature bathing trail, or place a branch on the ground and move past this chosen feature to symbolize the end of their session. Herbal teas or other small snacks are often shared, ideally made with local materials and ingredients. Participants then reflect on and share their experiences as they enjoy the flavors of the natural bathing environment.

3.3 Expanding the Benefits of Nature Bathing in Chilean PAs, Through Wellness Tourism

Nature-based tourism, which involves travel to and engagement with natural environments through recreation and contemplation, can contribute to health and wellness in a variety of ways, including physical health, psychological wellness, psychosocial development, and spiritual upliftment (Curtin 2009; Quine Lackey et al. 2021; Von Lindern 2015). For example, it can support psychological wellness by helping people recover from stress and mental fatigue (Ulrich et al. 1991; Weiler and Davis 1993), cognitive wellness by helping them concentrate better (i.e., attention restoration; Kaplan 1995), psychosocial development by improving social contact opportunities that allay personal isolation (Dryglas and Salamaga 2016), and contribute to spiritual upliftment through development of new values, increased personal awareness, and empathy (Wolf et al. 2017).

Intentional programs like CONAF’s Nature Bathing may strengthen the health benefits of nature-based tourism as well as help PA gateway communities and tourism destinations recover their tourism sector post-pandemic through the development of domestic and international wellness tourism programs and experiences. According to Lu et al. (2020), in 2019, more than eight-billion people visited nature reserves around the world for relaxation and recovery before the pandemic. Wellness tourism, according to the Global Wellness Institute (2021), is “travel associated with the pursuit of maintaining or enhancing one’s personal well-being” (p. 77). Wellness tourism is a growing sector of tourism, accounting for 6.5% of all tourism trips in 2020, and is typically more heavily engaged in by domestic tourists (Global Wellness Institute 2021).

Wellness may be the primary or secondary focus of travel for wellness tourism segment participants. When wellness is a secondary focus for travel, travelers’ interests in maintaining good health and/or a wellness lifestyle during their travels affects some of their choices and activities (Global Wellness Institute 2021). Most wellness travel is secondary (92% of wellness tourism trips and 90% of wellness tourism expenditures in 2020), and this is expected to increase post-pandemic as travelers place greater emphasis on self-care. As noted by the Global Wellness Institute (2021), the COVID-19 pandemic has “expanded our understanding of self-care toward a more holistic concept encompassing healthy eating, exercise, social connections, sleep, creativity, nature, and much more” (p. 90). Supporting this claim, Qiu et al. (2021) found that after years of social isolation there is a renewed hunger for touch, human connections, travel, and experiences in nature.

Chile is not currently listed within the top 20 destination markets for wellness tourism; however, the country is well-positioned to support additional wellness tourism opportunities based on its PAs and other natural settings such as thermal and mineral springs. Wellness tourism programs, including nature bathing, can be developed within and around Chile’s PAs to offer the opportunity for visitors to experience wellness benefits within nature. Incorporating a greater focus on wellness within Chile’s primarily adventure-focused nature-based tourism industry would help to add relevance and accessibility for a broader audience, diversifying the current offering and boosting PA efforts to support resiliency and sustainability across the region. Thus, future collaboration between PAs and their PA gateway communities and destinations might focus on the development of domestic and international wellness tourism programs and experiences.

4 Future Implications and Needs

CONAF’s leadership continues in Chile and Latin America with regard to work on universal accessibility, social inclusion, and nature bathing, as demonstrated by their ongoing service in this area. They continue to provide technical advice to public agencies, such as National Park Services in Latin America and other international entities including work with the National Health Institute (INS) of Colombia and the Latin American Academy of Social Studies (ALES). CONAF also frequently consults with doctors specialized in mental health to promote partnerships with public health initiatives in Chile, and with Chilean municipalities to encourage the implementation of the nature bathing practice in urban parks and greenspace settings. Other efforts to develop resources and promote nature bathing experiences include the establishment of a virtual library of information, tools, and a series of digital files containing sensorial nature tours with immersive visual and soundscape elements of PAs (see https://www.conaf.cl/parques-nacionales/visitanos/banos-de-naturaleza/). This resource was developed to bring nature closer to all people at a time when many were either confined to their homes by the COVID-19 pandemic or were unable to visit PAs or other natural environments for other reasons.

As initial efforts to develop and implement nature bathing programs have demonstrated success and grown exponentially, leaders of the project have recently shifted focus toward standardizing this work and incorporating it within formal agency plans. In 2021, the official national Nature Baths Program was developed in the SNASPE units with the following objective: To guide, systematize, and standardize the technical management and promotion of health practices (Nature Baths) associated with the nature contained in the protected areas of the State of Chile, for the benefit of the integral health of all people who visit them (Lazo et al. 2021).

The program has now become more institutionalized within CONAF and is also continuing to expand within local communities around SNASPE protected areas through collaborative initiatives. For example, in September 2022, the program partnered with the Austral Garden Route Cooperative, a local community-based initiative that promotes the interconnectivity of humans and nature within the northern reaches of the Aysén Region of Patagonia. Together, these organizations co-produced the first online international symposium on reconnecting with nature for better health. Presenters included CONAF administrators and park rangers with experience in nature bathing, international experts, and members of the cooperative. Topics ranged from nature bathing and grounding to discussions of the Mapuche worldviews and how to better connect children with nature. Intertwined efforts like this help to broaden awareness and interest in the program, connecting CONAF rangers with entities and persons in their local communities that share similar interests and knowledge.

This chapter has focused on the potential of nature to contribute to human mental health and resilience. The 107 Protected Areas (PAs) of Chile’s national system of protected natural areas (SNASPE) offer important infrastructure that can contribute to all levels of resilience, public health, and human well-being. Through low-cost, intentionally designed, universal access trails and socially inclusive mindfulness programs within PAs, we believe that conservation can support human and nature interconnectedness. Moreover, these programs and infrastructure can be replicated in private PAs and even urban parks. Considering current trends of urbanization and rising health concerns, the continual awareness and growth of nature bathing opportunities within Chilean and Patagonian PAs could have a notable effect on community resilience.

CONAF’s intent is to continue to build nature bathing within the 21 PAs where programming and infrastructure are already established, and to expand the practice to additional parks. To do so, the agency is continually working to train more park rangers as nature bathing guides. In addition, CONAF is calling for research to validate the mental and physiological benefits of the Chilean native forest, including clinical studies that investigate the potential benefits of nature bathing for human resilience and health. The quality and diversity of Chile’s SNASPE PAs offer the opportunity for several lines of research. Studies that differentiate the volatile organic compounds across Chilean forest types and identify how particular compounds contribute to human health could help to design nature bathing programs that target the most beneficial locations and activities. Alternatively, research that develops a better understanding of the perceived and experienced physiological and mental effects of particular Chilean ecosystems would also help agencies such as CONAF prioritize new nature bathing programs.

In addition to research, advocacy and communication efforts will be critical for expanding nature bathing programs throughout the region. Gradually, doctors (especially alternative medicine doctors) have begun to prescribe time in nature as a compliment to other medical treatments. To encourage the expansion of this practice, advocacy efforts should focus on increasing free access to PAs for persons participating in these types of medical therapies. Similarly, partnerships with the medical community around health benefits associated with nature exposure might focus on developing greater accessibility to particular forest environments that provide the greatest potential for preventative healthcare and healing. Finally, more effective strategic communication strategies will be needed to promote nature bathing programs within Chile and Patagonia. Dissemination methods that optimize and increase sectoral alliances will help raise awareness and support for programming. They will also contribute to continued evolution of nature bathing and the development of new programs that strengthen conservation and human interconnectivity with nature and align with societal goals of improved accessibility, health, and resilience.