Dubai: Supporting health tourism

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 long-term plan to further build on the solid health care industry that has been developed.

Health tourism is already a major contributor to the Dubai economy, with official estimates putting direct and indirect revenue from the segment at $1.6bn in 2012. Given that 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 cost, and political stability.

The current regional leader in health tourism is Jordan, according to the World Bank, though its mantel could be slipping as competition from better-resourced rivals, such as Dubai, increases. Jordan’s own reputation for stability has weakened due to ongoing protests and the growing security issues around its borders in Syria, Israel and Egypt.

In late November, 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 of Dubai 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 three-month visa can be extended twice if necessary.

The new system also clarifies the process for hospitals applying for visas on behalf of their overseas customers and sets out a quota for health care facilities registered to provide treatment to overseas patients, mandating the number of visas they may have for medical tourists at any one time.

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.

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 in the sector.

According to Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, the chairperson of the Dubai Healthcare City Authority, that role is 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 Health care City, a dedicated medical and research centre established by the government.

“This project is of vital importance to the health sector, as all relevant stakeholders, including immigration, the aviation industry, the hospitality sector, and public and private hospitals, are coming together to position Dubai as a medical tourism destination and to streamline the process of bringing patients to Dubai,” Abedin said on November 25.

The emirate will not be without competition as it works to raise its profile as a health tourism destination, with Turkey and Abu Dhabi also active in the sector and attracting an increasing number of patients from Europe. However, having made visiting and staying in the emirate easier, as well as opening the door for patients to receive extended treatment, Dubai has taken another step towards achieving its goal.

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