The development of medical tourism is based on the entire ecosystem that supports it: overall country environment, healthcare and tourism industry of the country, and quality of the medical facility and services, and prowess in technological advancement in the medical field.
For ages, people used to travel considerable distances for medical and wellness treatment. During Roman times people sought out spas and thermal baths. Romans constructed resorts with thermal spas in entire Roman provinces. Similarly, Greeks would travel to Epidauria (on the Saronic Gulf) to visit the sanctuary of the healing god, Asklenpios. In recent times, medical tourism has gained popularity as a new genre of tourism. It has flourished in the last 30 years because of increased medical costs in developed countries with a long waiting list. Medical tourism generally refers to access to medical services abroad at a low cost and the existing tourism infrastructure with services alike the star hotel category. Visitors are willing to pay for healthful living practices provided the services offered are credible and reliable.
According to the World Tourism Organization, medical tourism comprises of two segments: wellness and medical (based on medical, surgical, or dental interventions). Wellness tourism is an activity that aims to improve and balance overall well-being, while medical tourism involves evidence-based medical resources and services which may include diagnosis, treatment, cure, prevention, and rehabilitation. Wellness tourism involves travel to facilitate well-being and good health through psychological, spiritual, or physical activities (based on traditional therapies such as Yoga, Meditation, Ayurveda, and Spa). Tourism here simply refers to combining health services with leisure travel. In the digital age with a plethora of information, people are increasingly becoming health conscious and are always working towards being healthy.
More than 10% of the world’s GDP and 7% of the world’s total exports come from tourism. The industry is worth over USD 1.1 trillion. The global health tourism industry is believed to have generated revenues of approximately USD 32.5 billion in 2019 – a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 17.9% for the period 2013 to 2019. It is expected to reach USD 207.9 billion by 2027, expanding at a CAGR of 21.1%.
Covid-19 has deeply impacted both human and social life, derailing all the social fabric that was one of the binding factors of society. The prospects for coming years remain uncertain because of a variety of reasons. Ongoing studies across the world, on the impacts of COVID-19 and the future of travel and tourism, are predicting that the travel and tourism consumption patterns may change in the post-COVID 19 eras. The travel and tourism industry needs to rethink strategies that may help to recover and sustain tourism in the post-COVID-19 era. The pandemic has changed the way of consumer behaviour, tourist behaviour, in particular, that is mainly guided by the motivation to travel. Various researches have shown that visitors are likely to travel to destinations that are less crowded with more spaces; avoid public transportation, and eventually reconnect with nature. Nature stands out as an elixir of life. This has brought both medical tourism and wellness tourism to the forefront. Wellness tourism is burgeoning and has become more pronounced during the COVID-19 period where conscious visitors are seeking quality living.
Destination keeps on looking for new products that help it to attract visitors and sustain in the market. Many destinations have well-established themselves for medical tourism. Countries such as India, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea are well-established destinations in medical tourism and are acknowledged as the foremost destinations for medical tourism due to excellent quality medical infrastructure with a high success rate. They have established their credibility in medical tourism by showcasing their skillful proﬁciency in the medical field and providing services at the most competitive prices. These destinations have emerged as an alternative to the developed world where the public healthcare system is overwhelmed by a long waiting list of patients seeking urgent surgery. Sometimes heart surgery might take more than six months. Destinations that promote themselves as medical tourism offers immediate surgery with international standards.
The development of medical tourism is based on the entire ecosystem that supports it: overall country environment (e.g., stable economy, country image), healthcare and tourism industry of the country (e.g., healthcare costs, popular tourist destination), and quality of the medical facility and services (e.g., quality care, accreditation, the reputation of doctors), and prowess in technological advancement in the medical field.
To establish as a successful destination for medical tourism, destinations must ensure that they have highly-qualified doctors who are internationally accepted with international accreditation. Many destinations have Joint Commission International Accredited hospitals that help to gain trust from the patients. There is an International Organisation for Standardisation ensuring the quality of a hospital. Also, these hospitals take care that there is an almost minimum waiting time for complex operation with quality service.
However, the development of medical tourism is fraught with challenges. It is based on hospitality modality (at least 75% of the services provided to patients should be hospitality-related services), internationally accredited medical doctors, hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, life care adding wellness and spa, dietician, nutritionist, insurance companies, transportation, follow-up care, and others. In other words, medical tourism is all about treatment procedures and facilities, tourism opportunities, travel arrangements, and building of image as a premier holiday destination with excellent medical treatment.
Owing to the natural endowment with diverse culture, Nepal has a competitive edge over its competitors to tap global prospects in the wellness tourism sector based on natural healing resources (Nepal boasts of 2.6% of all flowering plants, 9.3% birds, and 4.5% of mammals of the world). Further, richness in biodiversity also makes Nepal a high-value wellness tourism destination. The abundance of medicinal herbs and medicinal plants places Nepal in an advantageous position. The diversity of Himalayan berries, herbs, and spices and minerals help in making organic food that is much needed for yoga and meditation practitioners. According to a report, 50% of the total geographical area of the country forms the land resource base for the provision of medicinal and aromatic plants. Nepal's uniqueness is that its wellness tourism is solely mountain-based.
To realize the potential benefits of wellness tourism, medical infrastructure needs to be taken care of. First and foremost is having internationally accredited medical doctors that deliver services with execution skills par excellence. Well-planned medical tourism encompassing both medical and wellness can see high-end visitors with a premium price tag in services generating good revenue for the destination. It is equally important that a business modality is enthused in wellness tourism programmes and policies. The government on the other hand needs to play a facilitator role in coordinating, organising, and strengthening the Nepali wellness tourism market. The government should encourage participation in trade shows and other promotional events that are designed to attract patients by building a positive image of the country. There is a good prospect of wellness tourism as it is growing exponentially mostly due to the changes in people’s lifestyles.
(Mr. Sunil Sharma serves as a Senior Manager in Research, Planning and Monitoring Department at Nepal Tourism Board. He can be reached at [email protected])