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MIDDLE EAST: The winds of change will affect Middle-East medical tourism

There are already signs that the winds of change in the Middle East will affect medical tourism, but in each country the effects may differ.

Traditionally, the Middle East /Gulf region has been a source of medical tourists for other countries, particularly Germany, the USA and UK. After 9-11, travel restrictions and anti-Arab sentiment, meant that the US became less popular. Recent US moves to increase inbound travel may alter that. Countries such as Belgium have targeted Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE; some Asian destinations have fared less well in attracting this market. The building of new hospitals in the region is struggling to keep up with demand, so outbound medical tourism is still expanding. Meanwhile, several places, particularly Dubai and Jordan have been promoting themselves as medical tourism destinations. 

Once you discount the expatriate and business or vacation traveller who becomes sick, the Middle East/Gulf country has made few inroads in attracting people from Europe or North America. Partly this is due to cost, but increasingly it is due to the increased political tensions in the region. Unfortunately for those places that are peaceful and safe, the average European or American does not discriminate between places but just regards the region as one. It is likely to be many years before this changes, so those places promoting medical tourism are effectively competing among themselves for regional custom.

Regional custom is also being affected by politics. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed has warned that changes will affect every Arab state, “The winds of change that are now blowing in the Middle East will eventually reach every Arab state.” In Saudi Arabia, the number of people who travel overseas for the purpose of medical tourism is around 200,000, mainly to the USA, UK, Germany and France. South Korea wants to take some of that business. The minister of health of Saudi Arabia, and the ministry of health and welfare of Korea, recently signed a co-operation agreement. As well as treating Saudis in Korea, Korean hospitals will be given the opportunity to be part of a new medical city, which is a national project of the Saudi government. Saudi patients are going to foreign countries for organ transplants, cancer treatment, organ transplant and chronic disease care, and it is this lucrative market that Korea wants.

Turkey is targeting several Middle East countries, the latest being Yemen. The Yemeni Ministry of Health sent over 200,000 patients to Jordan and Egypt in 2011. Turkey’s goal is to receive at last 10% of this amount in 2012 from Yemen and 50% in the future. With one neighbour Syria effectively fighting a civil war, and the other one, Egypt, embroiled in a struggle between protestors and the military, tourism to Jordan is being affected. The Yemen government is looking at alternative medical tourism destinations, and Turkey can offer cheaper treatment than Jordan in a peaceful region. But the Yemen is another country with problems.

Jordan hopes for an increase in medical tourism in 2012, but local political problems may make this unlikely. Local hospitals promoting medical tourism are reluctant to say how many international patients are actually medical tourists. Libya has been the main source of business in recent years, and local hospitals are now seeing Libyan business again. There are 20,000 Libyans in Jordanian hospitals, but these are mostly casualties of war, not medical tourists. There are so many Libyans that a committee of representatives from different branches of the health sector will be formed to regulate the distribution of Libyan patients to local hospitals. The committee will have a base at Queen Alia International Airport where Libyan patients can get a preliminary diagnosis and be referred to hospitals according to the specialisations available. During the Libyan civil war, many Jordanian hospitals treated war casualties for free, but the numbers still coming mean that they cannot afford to keep doing this. The Jordanian government has agreed to use public hospitals to treat Libyans. More importantly, the new Libyan government has agreed to pay treatment costs.

In the past, Qataris preferred to seek medical treatment in Europe, and some still do. But aggressive medical tourism promotions by Thai tourism operators and the Tourism Authority of Thailand in the Middle East means Qatari arrivals in Thailand increased from 14,052 in 2007 to 15,138 in 2008, 15,913 in 2009, and 22,341 in 2010. Regency Travel & Tours in Qatar, with 35 offices in Qatar, says 30-35% of clients select Thailand with the rest preferring Europe, particularly Germany and the Czech Republic. 

Bahrain’s $1.6bn Dilmunia Health Island is a step closer to becoming a reality, with a call for tenders for the project’s initial infrastructure phase. Development manager Ithmaar Development Company (IDC) says phase 1 infrastructure works will take 24 months to complete, and rather ambitiously expects the first hospitals, hotels and clinics to be open by mid-2014. The aim is to turn Bahrain into a world-class health tourism destination. The artificial island is off the northeast coast of Muharraq. It will be a mix of residential, leisure and commercial sub-developments, surrounding core health and wellness facilities.

Whether Dilmunia will ever be more than a fantasy is debatable as political tensions in Bahrain have almost destroyed the local tourism industry, with violent crackdowns on dissenters, plus doctors and nurses being imprisoned for treating dissidents. In the Gulf kingdom the Shia Muslims are in the majority, but the kingdom is ruled by a royal family from the Sunni minority, who also happen to occupy most government posts. The country may have difficulty attracting investors, medical tourists or medical staff for Dilmunia.

Medical tourism news23 February 2012

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