Thailand has healthy prospects for medical tourism

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An increase in overseas patient numbers should lift earnings in Thailand’s health tourism sector this year, with double-digit growth forecast as service providers move to boost their profile and service offerings.

Medical tourism should generate earnings in excess of BT100bn ($3bn) in 2015, from income earned by private hospitals listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET), according to Kasikorn Research Center, a subsidiary of Kasikorn Bank. This represents revenue growth of up to 15% year-on-year (y-o-y). The number of medical treatments provided to international tourists by Thai private hospitals is expected to reach 2.81m this year, up 10.2% y-o-y.

Thailand has long held the crown of one of the most popular holiday destinations in Asia luring tourists and travellers with its diverse package of beaches, cultural sites and nightlife. However, more recently, Thailand has sought to develop itself as a premium tourist market, eager to show a more sophisticated offering to visitors. As part of the government’s 2014 Action Plan, niche markets such as medical tourism will form a core pillar of the sector’s development.

Health sector

Thai officials are targeting 28m tourists in 2015 – a 13% increase on last year’s figure –and earnings of BT1.35trn ($41bn), which would represent a 16% y-o-y improvement.

While the health services segment of the tourism industry represents only a fraction of overall arrivals and revenue, it is a growing and increasingly lucrative market. In early January, Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, the tourism and sports minister, said the focus of the industry needed to be directed towards boosting revenue rather than arrivals.

According to the Kasikorn Research Center report, foreigners travelling to Thailand and expatriates currently living in the country will make a significant contribution to private health centre revenues. “We expect that the number of medical treatments provided to them by Thai private hospitals will reach perhaps 2.81m during 2015, up 10.2% y-o-y,” the report said.  

In line with the growth, foreign investment in the Thai health sector is also increasing. Greater overseas interest, from Japan, Malaysia and Singapore in particular, should serve as a spur to locally-based service providers, which will need to work harder to maintain their competitive edge in the market as the segment consolidates in a bid to expand its reach.

“An explicit adjustment is seen in the pursuit of mergers and acquisitions, aimed at broadening their customer base and gaining access to potential markets,” the report said. “They have also integrated related businesses, such as pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and even retail and travel businesses.”

More hospital beds for foreigners

Some market leaders have been investing to reinforce their position in the market. Late last year, Bumrungrad International Hospital announced it expected revenue to grow by 10% in 2015, a result of expected increases in foreign as well as domestic patients. While continuing to focus on core overseas markets such as the Middle East, the US, and northern and central Asia, the hospital’s management said it was planning to raise its profile by opening more referral offices in other countries. These would include Myanmar, Indonesia and Cambodia, which are seen as markets with good potential in the medical tourism sector.

Bangkok Dusit Medical Services (BDMS) is investing BT4bn ($122.7m) on new facilities at its Bangkok Hospital. BDMS is adding 300 beds to be reserved for overseas patients, of which 100 will be dedicated to customers from the Middle East and Myanmar with the balance for patients from Western countries.

Healthcare shares top pick

Though overall prospects for medical tourism are good, there are some headwinds blowing over the segment. In particular, the poor economic performance in some key markets, such as several European countries and Japan, could mean a slowing of the flow of patients from those traditional sources.

Russian visitor numbers declined sharply late last year, coinciding with the fall in the rouble, although increases in arrival numbers from other countries, along with a general rebound forecast for the tourism industry, are expected to offset downturns from individual markets.

For now, the prospects for medical tourism are boosting the shares of the 15 health services providers listed on the SET, which were among the prime movers on the market’s index last year. Shares gained 57.8% in the 11 months to the end of November, according to exchange’s most recent report, outperforming the general tourism index which gained 31%. Assessing the performance of the listed hospital stocks, Bloomberg news agency said the strong growth was in part due to demand for medical tourism services, with the segment seen as “punching above its weight”.

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