Wealth from health: The medical tourism segment is getting major support

New visa regulations designed to allow foreign visitors undergoing medical treatment to stay for up to nine months are expected to reinforce Dubai’s appeal as a health tourism destination, and are part of a plan to build further on an already-developed industry.

BIG CONTRIBUTOR: Health tourism is currently a major contributor to the Dubai economy, with initial official estimates putting direct and indirect revenue from the segment at $1.6bn in 2012. Given that finalised direct earnings from the tourism sector for 2011 came to $4.35bn, the health component represents a significant source of revenue, one that the government and investors are confident will increase in the coming years. This confidence is based on a number of factors, including Dubai’s strong and expanding health infrastructure, established travel links, competitive costs and political stability. The segment’s current regional leader is Jordan, according to the World Bank, though its mantel could be slipping as competition from better-resourced rivals, like Dubai, increases.

NEW STEPS: In late November 2012, Dubai took another step in establishing itself as a health care destination by streamlining procedures for issuing visas to medical tourists. It also extended the length of time visitors can stay in the emirate, ensuring those needing longer-term treatment can receive the necessary care.

The initiative is part of a broader programme endorsed by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the crown prince and chairman of the Dubai Executive Council, to reinforce the emirate’s role as a regional and global centre for health tourism, and to create investment and employment opportunities.

Under the new system, foreigners wishing to receive treatment in Dubai will be able to obtain a three-month visa, with their hospital processing and submitting the request and all required documents. Once approved, the initial visa can be extended twice if it is necessary.

Essa Al Haj Al Maidour, the director-general of the Dubai Health Authority, said the new visa regime will make it easier for overseas patients to access the emirate’s health services and reduce bureaucracy. “Unification of policies and processes will ensure smooth functioning of a dynamic health sector and will benefit both medical tourists and health care providers,” Al Maidour said when announcing the new processes.

PRIVATE SECTOR SUPPORT: The changes to the visa regulations were implemented following consultations between state agencies and representatives of the private health sector, a reflection of the greater role the government wants the private sector to play. According to Princess Haya bint Al Hussein, the chairperson of the Dubai Healthcare City Authority, that role is now being taken up, with a strong move by private health providers into the local market. “The private sector has recognised the potential of the region, which has led to the emergence of more private providers,” Princess Haya told OBG in a recent interview. “As the private sector develops, it will bring increased investment and expertise into the industry.”

Dubai has taken a holistic approach to medical tourism, acknowledging that the benefits of health care can spread far beyond direct revenue generated by providing treatment to overseas patients. There are several sectors that can play a role in making the emirate a leading health services destination, said Marwan Abedin, the CEO of Dubai Healthcare City, a dedicated medical and research centre created by the government.

“This project is of vital importance, as all relevant stakeholders, including immigration, the aviation industry, the hospitality sector, and public and private hospitals, are coming together to make Dubai a medical tourism destination and to streamline processes for patients,” Abedin said in a November 2012 statement.

The emirate will not be without competition as it works to become a health tourism destination, with Turkey and Abu Dhabi also active in the sector and attracting increasing numbers from Europe. However, having made visiting and staying in the emirate easier, along with opening the door for patients to receive extended treatment, Dubai has positioned itself well.

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The Report: Dubai 2013

Tourism chapter from The Report: Dubai 2013

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