Monica Figuerola

Health tourism: a new opportunity for new destinations

As has already been repeated on numerous occasions, health tourism can become a great alternative for the requalification of tourism in the world. It is also an interesting driving force for the deseasonalisation of tourism flows with high added value for many destinations that have not been so touristy up to now.

Undoubtedly, the first thing that is required is the correct definition of this type of tourism to avoid confusion and misunderstandings that lead to a manipulation of the model and a demagogy contrary to its development.

Health Tourism is the flow of patients who travel to a country other than their place of origin to receive medical or surgical treatment (OMT).

Health Tourism, however, involves the care of international patients in public centres by virtue of the application of the European Directive 2011/24/EU on cross-border healthcare.

Having clarified the concepts, it must be recognised that Health Tourism, as already defined, is a way of improving the profitability of the tourism proposal for many countries with a high quality of care and, in particular, for destinations that are betting more forcefully on their positioning in this segment. 

In fact, destinations such as Turkey, Malaysia, South Korea and Spain are doing a commendable job in this respect.

As is happening in the aforementioned countries, health tourism is also an extremely attractive type of tourism as a business, due to the benefits it brings: it delocalises and deseasonalises demand, considerably increases the average length of stay, improves the image and strengthens the brand of the destination, increasing the average spending of the tourist patient, among other values.

However, in macroeconomic terms, health tourism still has little impact in the strict sense of the word and there is still a long way to go in terms of its enormous potential for growth, practically worldwide.

The pandemic has undoubtedly demonstrated the importance of health and has highlighted, as never before, the importance of the safety of destinations in terms of health and, fundamentally, the relevance of health infrastructures in destinations that aspire to be world leaders in tourism.

On the other hand, there are eminently touristic countries, such as Spain, which already have a significant track record in medical tourism (tourists who fall ill and are treated in health centres) as reflected in the World Economic Forum's 2017 tourism competitiveness report, which elevated Spain to first place in the ranking, among other reasons due to the quality of Spanish health infrastructures, and this undoubtedly helps to boost medical tourism, because although they are different typologies, they feed off each other.

What is clear is that the expertise developed by centres and specialists in treating tourists who suffer illnesses or accidents during their holiday stay, makes these leading destinations in the industry, safer proposals from the perception of the demand.

Notwithstanding the above, the development of health tourism requires a specific and complex strategy to be adopted, in terms of the future of this new tourism product, as it is a type of tourism that adds a lot of value, generates enormous positive externalities in the destinations and has a significant multiplier effect on the tourism economy. 

It also allows the improvement of the health offer in terms of innovation, investment in technology and talent and, therefore, it should be supported, especially in this first emerging phase, where we are consolidating the image of the destination and where what is demanded is greater investment in promotion through segmentation, as is already being done with other niche tourism products.

The collaboration of the public administration in speeding up certain administrative and bureaucratic procedures is also very important. This cooperation is even more important than economic-budgetary cooperation.

Health tourism is, in short, a market in full growth in the world, with an annual average of 20%, both in number of patients and in turnover generated, and we know that more than 80% of the business is generated in the immediate environment, without exceeding 3-6 hours of flight time from the country of origin, which also represents a strength for destinations with good connectivity with the main source markets.

The stagnation of domestic demand also makes internationalisation one of the greatest opportunities for growth and development for many countries. But more structured and systematic support from government agencies is needed to help minimise the risks when going out to attract foreign patients.

On the other hand, it is necessary to increase collaboration between companies in the sector when it comes to generating synergies and alliances to optimise the international commitment: taking advantage of the consolidated internationalisation of the ICT sector applied to healthcare, as a driving force for the sale of the rest of the products/services in the healthcare sector.

Finally, it will be necessary to focus on the construction of a new paradigm, always taking advantage of new channels of attraction such as the technological solutions developed within the field of "e-Health".

Mónica Figuerola. 

PhD in Tourism and lecturer at the Antonio de Nebrija University

The authors are responsible for the choice and presentation of the facts contained in this document and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of Tourism and Society Think Tank and do not commit the Organization, and should not be attributed to TSTT or its members.

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