By Dr Arno Maierbrugger
Being based in Bangkok, it is astounding to experience the rapid growth in the number of Arab tourists to Thailand’s capital, of which most are seeking medical treatment. Two years ago, the area around the lower Sukhumvit road had its ‘Arab Quarter’ with the occasional shisha cafés and kebab stands, but today the place is crammed with men in white dishdashas and women with abayas who, during the day, have their therapy sessions in the huge Bumrungrad hospital complex, Southeast Asia’s largest hub for medical tourism, and on the evening go for a shopping stroll. The nearby Nana Shopping Mall has been given an Arabic theme where happy Arab families are cheering from advertising billboards, restaurants have beefed up their menus with Arabic dishes in Arabic language, and money changers list dirham, riyal, rial and dinar ahead of regional currencies to cater to the Arab medical tourists who mainly come from the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.
No doubt that this boom opens many avenues for investors in healthcare, pharmaceutical supply and related services such as special travel arrangements and the like. The medical tourism market is a multibillion dollar business, with Thailand alone having cashed in $3.2bn from more than 1mn health tourists visiting the kingdom in 2012, followed by Singapore and Malaysia.
The boom in health tourism in Southeast Asia is actually a shift in the global flow of medical travellers: while many patients from the Middle East used to prefer Europe as a medical destination, things changed after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, when visas were harder to come by for many. So they went to Southeast Asia, being pleasantly surprised by the low-cost medical services at an outstanding quality, and word-of-mouth recommendations did their bit.
What does this mean for investors? In fact, countries such as Thailand and, partly, Malaysia, are already well supplied with all kinds of medical facilities to cater to foreign patients.
However, the Philippines recently has discovered that it would have the potential to become another health tourism hub if it would only have enough affluent investors behind its newly introduced Philippine Medical Tourism Programme, a joint effort by the Departments of Health and Tourism. The programme seeks to push income from medical tourism to $2bn by 2015 from the current value below $1bn, but this will need a lot of effort in terms of rolling out the right strategy. Even though the country has a large pool of medical professionals and more than 2,000 hospitals, it does not yet have appropriate medical tourism destinations and lacks touristic infrastructure.
Thus, and in line with the Philippine government’s ambitious public-private partnership programme, investment opportunities are certainly there for a sector that can provide quality healthcare at a fraction of the costs in the West and, at the same time, offer an unparalleled touristic surrounding.
*Our columnist Dr Arno Maierbrugger is Editor-in-Chief of www.investvine.com, a news portal owned by Inside Investor focusing on Southeast Asian economic topics as well as trade and investment relations between Asean and the GCC. The views expressed are his own.Last updated:
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