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Medical and wellness are among the fastest growing travel markets. Hotels are responding and a growing number of online players are trying to make medical tourism simpler. Sally White takes a closer look at the opportunities and risks

Beauty is out! Tourists currently spend around $600 billion annually on being massaged, tucked, snipped, botoxed, implanted, relaxed, exercised and dosed, among a host of treatments. The International Medical Research Centre (IHRC) puts the number of spenders at well over 11 million with Patients Beyond Borders estimating that nearly a third of this number is travelling to Southeast Asia. 

However, money is being spent in the interests of their ‘wellbeing’ and for ‘medical’ reasons. A look at the websites seems to show that puritans have had a go at the ‘beauty’ in the marketing! In this crisis ridden age, the market has moved on!

Given the record rates of growth, forecast to be 29% compound over the next 10 years according to a report by Oxford Economics and Visa, 25% by others, the rebranding has obviously got it right. This is the fastest growing niche in international tourism. After all, who (including the frugal) can deny the sense of taking care of oneself! That sentiment, says the report, will build a $3 trillion market by 2025.

Wellness… the fastest growing niche in international tourism.

This branch of tourism has moved on in its marketing from beauty and illness treatments. It takes into account the fact that preventative care is equally important. At that rate, every tourist is a potential patient. Huge markets are now involved - hospitals, clinics, spas, fitness chains, yoga retreats, hotels, and so on.

The market is being expanded as hotels enhance their online offerings with not just gyms, but in-room workouts, jogging routes and sleep programmes. InterContinental Hotels has launched a wellness-focused brand called ‘Even’ which it is unrolling across the US. “There was a time when people went on holidays to pig out and forget all about their diet and exercise regimens. And while that may still be true of many … for others a break would not be a break unless they got to keep up their healthy lifestyle, “comments LonelyPlanet’s online review.

Only this week Hilton Worldwide only this week announced a partnership with cycling innovator Wattbike to rollout the performance indoor bike to luxury hotels across the Americas. Elsewhere, US hotel groups, such as Westin, are offering superfoods and running concierges. MGM Grand in Las Vegas offers Vitamin C infused showers - great for hangovers, it says! Arizona’s Fairmont Scottsdale Princess offers zero-gravity pods to reduce jetlag, for which the Viceroy Snowmass has complimentary Oxygen Inhalation Therapy. As this indicates, much of the travel included in the highest numbers for the market’s size is being done by tourists who seek a wellness experience on their travels.

Growth areas and risks

The US remains the biggest in the mainstream ‘medical and wellness’ industry sectors, according to the Global Wellness Institute (GWI). When inbound and domestic tourism is combined, the US spend, it says, is around $202 billion a year.

China, however, is showing the fastest growth, moving up from ninth to fourth in market size (domestic and international combined) between 2013 and 2015, revenues growing at over 300% to $30 billion.

“The Chinese consumer’s appetite for wellness-focused travel is huge and growing, but the current infrastructure for delivering these services and experiences in China at an international standard are limited,” commented Katherine Johnston on the GWI website.

The Chinese consumer’s appetite for wellness-focused travel is huge and growing

Other top nations as wellness tourism destinations are Germany ($60 billion), France ($30 billion), Austria ($15 billion), Canada ($14 billion) and the UK ($13 billion).

In its 2016 Monitor of Medical Tourism Trends, the IHRC puts Israel for quality of service for medical tourism at the top of its ranking, followed by Germany, India, Canada and then the UK. Overall, including the environment and other factors, the ranking goes Canada, UK, Israel, Singapore and then India.

Medical tourism is hotly competed for, to boost local economies. One of the most ambitious is Dubai, which aims to become ‘a preferred global destination for medical tourism’, and it has spent tens of billions. Last summer the Dubai Health Authority official launched its brand, the Dubai Health Experience. It has pulled in hotel groups, OTAs, and healthcare facilities. Its USP is the selection process that this network must undergo, with rigorous checks on quality assurance and clinical government.  

Some of the slickest marketing must be that coming from South Korea, which has a ‘SMART CARE AND CHOICE - Medical tourism in Korea’ section on its tourist website. The international range of ‘patients’ in the advertising indicates its global targeting. Coverage ranges from full details with pictures of hospitals and clinics (along with prices) and lists of operations on offer to explanations of the damage of alcohol and a site for medical tours with herbal therapy.

Not all believe the soaring Thai numbers, suspecting some double counting, but it undoubtedly attracts many patients from its neighbours. Malaysia, however, is a growing regional success story, welcoming more than 850,000 global medical tourists in 2015 and attracting $230 million of revenue. It aimed to make this $330 million in 2016.

New countries are building international reputations - Singapore for diagnosis and oncology, stem cell and regenerative therapies; Malaysia for executive health screenings, Thailand for cosmetic surgery and sex reassignment surgery. South Africa markets its expertise in cosmetic surgery. China (which even has a dedicated industry association) offers everything from high-tech hospitals to traditional treatments. However, clinics all around the world are trying to get into the act, offering flight discounts, hotel stays and airport transfers.

Most medical tourists travel for the same reasons - cost, shorter wait times for procedures, access to treatments not available at home. The risks are difficulties communicating, new bugs, strange medications and travel itself post the treatment.

While websites such as MediRoute, GloboMd, GetTreated and Medigo help travellers compare costs and book for treatment, accommodation and travel, there remains the great unknown of the quality of treatment. The US Joint Commission International (JCI) DNV International Accreditation for Hospitals and the International Society for Quality in Healthcare are global bodies of healthcare professionals vetting overseas medical facilities.  

Yet, as comment carried in Time magazine’s report The Dangers of Plastic Surgery Tourism said: “You want someone who is licensed to practice in the country that they are in, but those standards may be different...”

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