The Middle East lost five million tourists last year due to the impact of the Arab Spring, according to the latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer. New figures from Jordan confirm that medical tourism suffered.
55 million tourists visited the Middle East last year, 6% of the total international tourist arrivals of 980 million. Although tourism arrivals to the region slumped 8% in 2011 the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman still recorded steady growth. UNWTO forecasts a slow recovery in visitor numbers in the Middle East, up to 5% more in 2012 than in 2011.
Jordan’s medical tourism sector contracted in 2011 due to instability in the region, but is expected to bounce back this year, according to Awni Bashir of the Private Hospitals Association (PHA), “180,000 international patients came for treatment in the Kingdom’s hospitals in 2011 compared to around 220,000 patients the previous year, indicating a drop of nearly 20 % due to the turmoil in some countries in the region that prevented patients from leaving their countries for treatment.”
Historically, most patients come from Iraq, Palestine, Sudan and Yemen. The sector was particularly hard hit by the conflicts in Libya and Yemen in 2011, but the PHA hopes for a return to growth for medical tourism if the situation in these and other countries becomes more stable. With the ongoing turbulent conditions in the region, especially in neighbouring Egypt and Syria, the year ahead could be a challenging one for Jordan.
During 2011, Jordanian hospitals reported a drop in the number of Libyan, Yemeni, Sudanese, Bahraini and Syrian patients. Although the figures are often reported as being medical tourists this is not accurate. The figures are for all international patients, including expatriates, embassy staff, holidaymakers and business travellers. The PHA is vague on how many of the 180,000 are medical tourists and how many are from other categories. Of the total patients who had treatment in Jordan last year, 40% were from Libya, and there are currently some 4,000 Libyans in the country’s hospitals, although this includes war casualties receiving free treatment.
Accepting the need to widen the target market so the country is less vulnerable to political changes, the PHA is targeting new areas such as Azerbaijan and Russia. In cooperation with the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB), it recently organized a promotional tour for delegates from the Republic of Russia representing six medical tour operators and insurance companies. PHA argues that prices offered in Jordanian private hospitals are 25% to 49% less than in Germany or Israel, and there are Russian language speaking doctors.
As more Middle East countries seek to stimulate travel and medical travel, UNWTO is urging governments to make the most of information and communication technologies in improving visa application and processing formalities, as well as the timings of visa issuance.