As fears of Covid-19 infections die down in parallel with new cases declining globally, medical and wellness tourism is predicted to keep growing at a steady pace.
This month at ITB Berlin 2023, the biggest travel show in Europe, for the first time the organiser dedicated a hall for medical and health tourism, with participants including hospitals, hotels and destinations around the world.
The Thai government has been pushing the country as an international medical hub through a plan initiated in 2017 that runs to 2026, with a goal to increase competitiveness, including offering a one-year medical visa to entice long-stay guests.
Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), said the medical and wellness segment comprises about 10% of foreign visitors and this group spends about 35% more than an average tourist during their time in the country.
He said Thailand was ranked in the top five in the world for health security, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Siam Commercial Bank Economic Intelligence Center estimated the value of Thailand's medical tourism market at US$761 million in 2019.
With the popularity of healthcare booming post-pandemic and international arrivals of at least 25 million projected in Thailand this year, tourism operators want to seize this opportunity by enhancing their services and products.
Krod Rojanastien, president of the Thai Spa Association, said wellness tourism has been trending for a long time, but the pandemic put it in the spotlight.
"Wellness tourism provides an important opportunity for Thailand and we already have certain advantages, such as local wisdom and natural resources," said Mr Krod.
Marketing can promote organic Thai foods and herbs for proper nutrition, while Thai massage is recognised globally as part of our heritage, he said.
Krod: Labour shortage a hurdle
As Thailand has a variety of wellness products, tourists in this segment tend to stay longer, often for up to three months, said Mr Krod, also consultant to the chief executive at Chiva-Som International Health Resort. This group of people are also environmentally conscious, he said.
Mr Krod said there is growing demand at Chiva-Som as the resort offers personalised packages for different lifestyles, including spa, fitness, physiotherapy, holistic health, nutrition and aesthetic beauty.
However, a skilled labour shortage, particularly for therapists, remains a critical obstacle, he said.
Many employees left their jobs to work overseas, and some Thai wellness shops cannot fully reopen because they lack the workers, said Mr Krod.
He suggested the Public Health Ministry provide short courses to license new workers, enabling operators to fill the gap in the short term.
Bangkok Hospital joined the travel show and received interest from customers and tourism agents from the UAE, China, South Africa and Turkey, said business development director Ralf Krewer.
"Everybody needs a doctor," said Mr Krewer. "Some people can afford more services and are willing to travel for healthcare."
Thailand can offer more desirable medical choices with physicians and staff fluent in English, reasonable prices and easy-access visas, he said.
According to Bangkok Dusit Medical Services (BDMS), the parent of Bangkok Hospital, medical treatments in Thailand are 40-70% cheaper than in other destinations. For instance, heart bypass surgery costs around $15,000 in private Thai hospitals, while it could total $123,000 in the US.
Krewer: Thailand still offers value
Mr Krewer said Bangkok Hospital has patients from many countries, including Myanmar, Cambodia, the Middle East, Europe and even African countries like Ethiopia.
He said this year Bangkok Hospital averages 150 inpatient cases per day and 1,200-1,300 outpatient cases per day, relatively the same level as 2019.
However, Mr Krewer raised concerns about high electricity bills at hospitals and expensive airfare for travellers, which could stall growth of the sector.
Collaborations between hotels and wellness centres are an emerging trend post-pandemic.
BDMS Wellness Clinic Retreat is a joint project between BDMS and Minor Hotels at its Anantara Riverside Bangkok Resort.
"By combining wellness service at a hotel, it allows the hotel to serve more target customers through a one-stop service at one location. This helps create more impact than a stand-alone business unit," said Supachai Punja-apisith, director of sales and business development for Anantara Riverside Bangkok Resort.
Mr Supachai: More guests are coming for wellness services.
Mr Supachai said since opening in November 2022, the number of guests has gradually increased for wellness services.
Popular treatments include health check-ups, IV drips, supplements and filler, primarily provided by licensed physicians. The clinic can also help connect guests to hospitals in the BDMS network, he said.
Roughly 70% of wellness guests at the hotel are from the UK, the US or Germany, said Mr Supachai.
He said the clinic wants to attract more guests from the Middle East, which is considered the strongest market for this segment, including from Saudi Arabia.
Authorities should invest in digital marketing to draw a more specific target audience and build stronger branding content, said Mr Supachai.
ArokaGO, a medical and health travel platform, was launched last year to fill a gap in the industry, but it still lacks a middleman to connect all stakeholders, said Kulabutr Komenkul, chief executive and lecturer at a university.
The platform helps patients find accredited hospitals and clinics in Thailand, communicate with staff and access useful medical content.
Kulabutr: Platform meant to fill the gap
Mr Kulabutr said hospitals and clinics on the platform are certified by Joint Commission International and American Accreditation Commission International, which represent the global standards for quality and safe treatment.
However, he said a problem for the industry is only around 100 facilities have received those accreditations.
"The process for accreditation can be expensive and take many months, which can be a burden for small operators," said Mr Kulabutr.
He said the company is looking for services that have been recognised under the Global Healthcare Accreditation and Planetree, as well as developing its own accreditation "ArokaGO Star" together with academic and medical committees to offer them at a lower service rate.
The platform hopes to gain 100-200 partners this year, mostly wellness spas, beauty clinics and dental clinics. It plans to offer more medical content and wants to adopt artificial intelligence technology to help translate languages for foreign users in more countries, said Mr Kulabutr.
He said the challenges for Thailand involve developing specialised courses and training more workers as doctor's assistant who can accommodate tourists.
Strict regulation of healthcare ads should be eased and collection of medical records and personal data should be more flexible to facilitate foreign patients, said Mr Kulabutr.
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Some scholars warned that medical tourism should be carefully managed, even though it generates high value for the economy.
"If all the doctors and nurses are lured to the medical tourism segment because they can earn higher income, what will become of the national healthcare system, as there is already a shortage of medical professionals?" said assistant professor Kassara Sukpetch of the Graduate School of Tourism Management at National Institute of Development Administration.
Kassara: Spread the wealth
Asst Prof Kassara said tourism is meant to reduce inequality by spreading the wealth.
Promotion of wellness tourism should benefit more people in the supply chain as Thailand has various resources and services involving several local producers, she said.
Asst Prof Kassara also suggested the government work harder on strengthening its branding. For instance, the state could develop an international-level certification for Thai massage and spa therapists that could attract foreign students, as well as export therapists to teach in foreign institutions.
Other plans include policies that develop the wellness and medical supply chain, as well as subsidising the communities to initiate startups and local products, she said.
left A therapeutic Thai massage offered at the Tamarind Springs Forest Spa in Koh Samui.
above Guests take a stroll in the garden area of Chiva-Som Resort.