The improving medical infrastructure across Asia has seen new destinations of choice emerge for tourists seeking treatments. Meanwhile, more hospitality players are entering into medical tourism to provide a holistic wellness experience. By Barathi Narayan, S Puvaneswary, Rohit Kaul and Xinyi Liang-Pholsena
A recent report by Visa and Oxford Economics projects medical tourism to grow 25 per cent annually in the next decade and the industry is estimated to reach US$3 trillion by 2025. In Asia, Thailand, Singapore and South Korea are expected to benefit from the growth in global medical tourism spending.
And as medical tourism becomes an industry hotspot for Asia, regional governments are pledging more efforts to drive this high-yield niche market.
The Thai government recently tripled the period medical tourists can stay in Thailand to 90 days, according to the Oxford Business Group, allowing them to undergo more extensive procedures and potentially combine treatment with leisure travel.
In India, the government formed a National Medical and Wellness Tourism Board in 2015 to address the challenges facing the segment and has expanded the e-tourist visa facility to include short-term medical treatments for 150 countries.
Malaysia: healthy demand from ASEAN
The outlook for medical tourism is also bright for Malaysia. The sector has grown from 643,000 medical tourists and a revenue of RM527 million (US$118.4 million) in 2011 to 860,000 medical tourists in 2015 and a revenue RM914 million.
The regional market is playing an increasing role in Malaysia’s medical tourism sector. Sherene Azli, CEO at Malaysian Healthcare Travel Council, said the bulk of travellers are from Indonesia, which contributes approximately 60 per cent of medical tourists to the country, while other major markets are Bangladesh, the Middle East, ASEAN nations and Australia.
She added: “Malaysia is known for its quality and affordable medical services. The types of procedures sought after chiefly depend on the profiles of the patients, but the top fields in demand are general health screening, orthopaedics, cardiology, in-vitro fertilisation, neurology and aesthetics (dental and cosmetic surgery). Malaysia also caters to a high number of international patients in urology, oncology and gastroenterology.”
For Dayangti Transport & Tours’ operations manager S Jayakumar, medical tourists to Malaysia represent a high-yield crowd that is willing to spend not just on medical procedures but also tourism products.
“Many will come with their family members, especially the elderly, to seek medical attention for chronic treatments. If the treatment requires surgery, the caregivers will likely stay at a serviced residence near the hospital as it provides cooking facilities. They will also require a private vehicle and driver to take them to the hospital and back, on top of visiting attractions in the area,” he said.
Singapore’s hub status shaken
Promoting Singapore as an affordable destination for foreign medical tourists is becoming an uphill struggle, trade players in the city pointed out, particularly as regional rivals make marked improvements in their quality of healthcare services and pursuit of medical tourists backed by government marketing.
Said Tan Chien-Wei, director of Ulink Assist, a medical concierge provider in Singapore: “As we attend medical tourism exhibitions in the region, we are envious of how the medical tourism associations in Thailand and Malaysia, backed by their governments, are so proactive in courting Chinese patients. The Singapore government needs to contribute, even if it’s just a little.”
Tan further noted that intra-country medical travel is becoming popular especially in Indonesia, with many well-heeled medical tourists who once favoured Singapore now travelling to Jakarta for their treatments.
Both Tan and Melivon Martheo, business development manager of Anaya Tour and Travel, observed an increasing trend of medical tourists either being diagnosed or seeking a second opinion from health specialists in Singapore, but getting the suggested treatments elsewhere at lower costs.
Indicating the trend, Ulink’s outpatient numbers grew 15 per cent in 2016 whereas inpatient numbers fell by the same amount, shared Tan.
For India, affordability a shot in the arm
India is another destination that’s on the radar for its affordability. Arun Anand, managing director, Midtown Travels India, observed that Chennai is “hugely popular” among international medical tourists, with hospitals in the city offering procedures like cardiac bypass, bone marrow transplant and eye surgery at “very competitive prices”.
“In fact, medical procedures like stem cell transplant in India are said to be 65-90 per cent cheaper compared to markets like the US,” he noted.
Cities like Gurgaon in Delhi NCR region are known for medical procedures among international visitors especially from SAARC and Africa, added Ravi Gosain, managing director, Erco Travels, while those from CIS and Gulf countries, Europe and North America are also streaming into India for medical services.
Arun added: “Medical tourism offers huge opportunities to tour operators as recovery time of a patient after a medical procedure can be utilised in exploring the destination. The government’s interest to grow this segment should benefit all the stakeholders.”
Rajeev Kale, president and country head leisure travel and MICE at Thomas Cook (India), said: “India is indeed coming of age, not just as a potential medical tourism destination, but equally for alternative remedies like Ayurveda, Unani, yoga and meditation – through specific wellness programmes – in combination with conventional domestic vacations.”
While this segment was predominantly seen as an inbound driver, the domestic market is seeing a significant demand as well, he added.
Other traditional medical treatments like Unani and Naturopathy are also giving the country an edge over medical tourism destinations in Asia, according to some tour operators in the country.
Erco Travel’s Ravi added: “We are targeting mostly Europe and North America for customers who are looking for cosmetic surgeries and wellness treatments. At this moment this is not a huge market for India but it is growing.”
Resorts, hospitals partner up
Given the fast growth of wellness tourism in Asia, there has been a marked trend of integrating medical expertise with wellness and hospitality offerings.
Singapore last year gained its first integrated healthcare and hospitality complex, Connexion, encompassing the 250-key One Farrer Hotel & Spa, lifestyle retail strip Owen Link, Farrer Park Medical Centre providing specialist clinics and Farrer Park Hospital, the country’s newest private hospital.
The city’s leading private property developer Far East Organization (FEO) has also branched into providing holistic healthcare with its Novena Lifestyle and Medical Hub, two integrated developments comprising Novena Medical Center and Novena Specialist Center.
“The healthcare experience is further supported by Square 2 mall which provides retail therapy and essential services such as banks and supermarket while Oasia Hotel Novena offers restful convalescence to medical tourists,” shared Cheryl Huan, COO, corporate real estate business group, FEO.
Singapore is taking the holistic healthcare model a step further with ambitious plans to shape Novena into the nation’s largest medical hub by 2030. Health City Novena will bolster the existing medical cluster in Novena including Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, NMC and NSC.
Elsewhere in Asia, Indian conglomerate ITC, which operates luxury hotel chains like ITC Grand Bharat Gurgaon, will foray into the healthcare sector and take on players such as Apollo Hospitals, Fortis and Max Healthcare.
The company, in its notice to shareholders, highlighted that its experience in the hospitality sector can be utilised to grow medical tourism in the country. Besides multi-speciality hospitals, it plans to set up nursing homes, medical and healthcare centres, specialist clinics, medical and nursing colleges, and medical research centres.
Asian resorts are seeing good therapy in linking up with hospitals to provide medical packages, enabling travellers to receive holistic treatments while on holidays.
In Thailand, Amatara Wellness Resort recently signed an MoU with Bangkok Phuket Hospital to develop an integrative wellness programme. Among the packages offered is the Brain Health Enhancement Programme, which starts with brain function assessment and sleep test at the hospital, before customers continue with an intervention wellness programme focused on improving brain health at the resort.
“We foresee high potential growth in wellness market. GWI (Global Wellness Institute) reported that wellness travel has grown 74 per cent more than regular global travel,” said Prattana Punnakitikashem, director, Amatara A Destination Spa.
Europe make up the foremost market for wellness tourists at Amatara Wellness Resort, while Australia and Asia are showing great potential, Prattana shared.
Also advocating a preventive health approach is Como Shambhala Urban Escape in Singapore, which recently launched holistic wellness packages designed to help clients recover from current sports injuries and to prevent future injuries, with expertise from sports coaching, yoga and acupuncture practitioners.