Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, medical and wellness tourism was a significant growth industry in many emerging economies. The last decade saw a boom in medical tourism: by 2018 the global market was generating $58.6bn annually, and in 2019 it was forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 11.7% to reach more than $142.2bn by 2026. While the pandemic represents a major setback for the segment, there are signs that it may be recovering in several markets.
The growth of medical tourism was largely spurred by increased awareness – particularly among citizens of higher-income countries – of the quality and relative affordability of health care options in many emerging economies. The appeal was further enhanced by the possibility of combining medical treatment with a holiday in an attractive location.
Asia has been a popular region for medical tourism for some time. Guided by the Ministry of Public Health’s 2016-25 strategic plan, titled “Thailand: A Hub of Wellness and Medical Services”, stakeholders there have been working to cement Thailand’s position as a regional leader in medical tourism. The Indian government, for its part, began offering a medical visa in 2017 to bring in more foreign patients. India saw nearly 700,000 people come to the country on a medical visa in 2019, equal to 6.9% of foreign tourist arrivals.
Governments in other regions similarly moved to capitalise on this growing segment. In 2015 Turkish Airlines announced a 50% discount on flights for people coming to Turkey for medical treatment, while the UAE adapted its visa policy to facilitate medical tourism and began offering a package that covered every aspect of a trip – from the cost of treatments, to leisure activities for patients and their families.
The UAE recorded $3.3bn in medical tourism revenue in 2018, up from $2.2bn in 2014. Dubai ranked sixth out of 46 markets in the 2020-21 Medical Tourism Index published by the International Healthcare Research Centre in July 2020, and first in MENA for the second year running. Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, came in ninth overall. Located next to Dubai and close to its international airport, Sharjah is well placed to capitalise on the UAE’s reputation in this area thanks to its portfolio of quality medical facilities (see Education & Health chapter).
With lockdowns and international travel bans upending the global tourism industry in 2020, travel for medical reasons was particularly affected as many people around the world deferred non-essential procedures. While it will take some time to get back to pre-pandemic levels, various institutions are implementing measures intended to reboot the industry in their respective countries. The UAE is again an example of this, with the federal government’s handling of the pandemic a major factor in reopening to tourists: the country was rated as the most Covid-19-safe in the region on the Global Soft Power Index, released by London-based consultancy Brand Finance in December 2020. The UAE has conducted extensive testing of both nationals and incoming visitors, and rapidly rolled out its vaccination programme, which has helped to secure its reputation for safety.
In Asia the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s “Beyond Healthcare, Trust Thailand” programme, launched in July 2020, required patients to take a Covid-19 test and quarantine at a hotel or hospital after arrival. Steps such as these should help get the industry back on track after a very disruptive year. Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok, for example – one of Thailand’s main medical tourism providers – saw a 94% year-onyear drop in revenue in the second quarter of 2020.
Telemedicine, however, has witnessed considerable growth, with many hospitals expanding online consultations for diagnosis and treatment plans. While the medium is often not a direct substitute for an in-person visit, it serves to maintain contact with potential medial tourists. Implementing a combination of solutions can help to restore the confidence of medical travellers, which will be the first step on the road to recovery.
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