Thailand is already Asia's largest destination for health tourism, attracting some 1.5m tourists undertaking some form of medical treatment in 2007. Singapore is ranked second in the region, with 460,000 arrivals.
The Medical Tourism Report 2008-12, issued by financial advisory firm Deloitte late last year, identified Thailand, along with Malaysia and Singapore, as being among the most preferred destinations in East Asia for medical treatment among foreign visitors.
According to the report, medical tourism in Asia is expected to grow by 20% annually, creating an industry worth $4bn by 2012, with Thailand positioning itself to grab a substantial slice of the trade. Thai authorities have already set a target of 2m health tourists for 2010.
While the health tourism sector is expected to maintain solid rates of growth in the medium term, in the shorter term at least it may labour under the same difficulties besetting the broader tourism industry in Thailand. Periodic bouts of political unrest, which included seeing antigovernment protestors close Bangkok's two airports late last year; the temporary imposition of emergency rule in April; the general downturn in the international tourist trade and, more recently, concerns over swine flu, have all hit Thailand's tourist trade.
Visitor numbers are down by 20% this year so far, with the Tourism Council of Thailand lowering its estimates of tourist arrivals from 12.8m to 10.8m, while predicted earnings for the year were revised down from $10bn to $7.27bn.
With a degree of uncertainty remaining over Thailand's enduring appeal as a destination, neighbouring countries and rivals in the health tourism trade, such as Malaysia, have been ramping up their own promotional activity in an attempt to woo potential overseas patients.
To try and counter this and the impact of recent events, the government has been talking up health tourism, with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva telling an investment conference in London in March that such niche segments of the tourism trade were central to efforts to revive the industry.
"We are also focusing our attention on developing Thailand as a medical tourism hub for high-quality, low-cost health and medical services," he said.
This focus includes more spending on advertising, including health tourism on the agenda of business roadshows and conferences, and trade fairs.
The private sector is also weighing in. To further promote its credentials as a medical tourism destination, Thailand is hosting The World Medical Health Tourism Conference (TWMHTC), to be held at the resort island of Phuket in September. While serving as a forum for discussion on the global health tourism industry, the conference's main aims are to highlight the services that the participating Thai hospitals, clinics and wellness companies can offer.
Maria Liza Edubas, the managing director of event organiser SOS Medical Tourism Services, said the conference will provide an opportunity for local and international health care companies and medical travel associations to come together, as well as raise Thailand's profile as a medical tourism destination.
"TWMHTC 2009 is one of the initiatives in making Phuket as the major destination for health and wellness in Thailand," she said. "The event will help open more doors for local investors into the international market, as well as for the global health care community to explore the possibilities of outsourcing medical treatments to Thailand."
Thailand enjoys a number of advantages in the effort to attract health tourists, not the least of which is cost. According to the Deloitte study, the price of many medical procedures in Thailand can be 50 to 75% lower than those in the US or the UK, two of the main markets for medical tourism.
The growth in health tourism in Thailand, along with the expansion of the domestic health service, also has major implications for producers of medical equipment and supplies. In a recent study, Thailand was listed as the world's 11th-largest market for medical equipment and supplies, with demand rising by 24% in 2006 and 15% the following year. This demand is expected to remain steady, or even climb, as more health providers look to cash in on the potential of medical tourism.
While the medical tourism trade may be feeling a little off colour due to the problems facing the wider tourism industry in Thailand, these ailments should be of a passing nature. Already established as a market leader in the region, the segment should continue to enjoy robust growth as the pace of the Thai tourism trade strengthens.