Tourism trends come and go, but there's one that's been quietly building for decades or centuries, depending on where you draw the line: health tourism. Patients want the best care they can get for their money, and that care isn't always found at home.
A patient may travel to Turkey to visit one of the world's largest vision clinics, Korea to explore alternative medicine and top-notch cancer care, Mexico for affordable treatments, or to any of dozens of destinations that distinguish themselves on state-of-the-art medicine, inexpensive care or ease of obtaining that care.
Medical tourism is a growing market. The latest estimate from Patients Beyond Borders is that 11 million consumers travel for medical treatments every year, contributing to a $55 billion market. Experts expect that number to grow as aging but mobile populations seek out the best care. And they aren't only going for treatment. A 2009 Medical Tourism Association survey found that 66% of patients enjoyed local shopping, sightseeing and tourism during their travels, often with a companion.
Tour and activity companies are starting to take note of this potential customer base, but it's still largely underserved. With careful research and planning, your business could make a name for itself in a market that's growing in leaps and bounds.
Step One: Research your region
Medical tourism is a global market, but that doesn't mean every region offers equal opportunities. The top markets for medical tourism include Costa Rica, India, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and the United States. If your business isn't based in any of those countries, you may still find medical destinations nearby, and they may have fewer businesses supporting them. You just need to do your research.
Patients Beyond Borders lists some popular destination clinics and hospitals. If none are in your region, look into local luxury hospitals and specialty clinics, like cancer clinics or cosmetic surgery practices. If any globally-recognized facility exists in your region, you may have an opportunity to serve its patients.
Now that you have a market, you need to learn more about it. Different groups of patients necessitate different considerations. Just like you would before starting any business endeavor, you need to know your demographics.
For example, if patients come to your region for world-class care at luxury hospitals, they're likelier to be wealthier than those who travel because treatments are more affordable in your country than at home. If patients come seeking long-term care, they may have more time to explore the area than someone visiting for a single surgery. Patients with mobility impairments will need accommodations that those traveling for psychiatric care may not. You should take all these factors into consideration before adapting your offerings for medical tourists.
Step Two: Consider accessibility
How can your business accommodate this unique group of tourists? Here are a few ideas:
- Include a pickup/drop-off location at or near the medical facility in question.
- Incorporate extra stops for visitors who can't go as long without breaks.
- Consider dietary restrictions for any food-related stops.
- Offer less physically-demanding versions of your tours.
- Ensure that you can accommodate a range of disabilities.
In fact, one of the best ways to make sure you're ready to accommodate medical tourists is to talk to people who've traveled for health reasons or with disabilities. John Sage owns a travel company that caters to tourists with disabilities, and in an article in Rick Steve's Europe, he suggests considering these factors when booking tours:
- Is the tour guide a licensed professional? How much training has the guide received and what tests have they passed
- What route will the guide use? Does it involve curbs, steps, steep hills, or cobblestones? Where are the accessible bathrooms located? Will the guide physically assist you if needed (i.e., push a manual wheelchair)?
- Is this a private tour, or will you be with other travelers? Are you expected to keep up with able-bodied tour members
- How many people with disabilities have they guided in the past year? (If it's been a long time, the guide may not be aware of the latest regulations or updates regarding accessibility.)
If you prepare for these questions, you'll be ready for the customers who will ask them.
Step Three: Find your niche
In some ways, medical tourists are like any other group of travelers. They've paid a lot to visit your part of the world, and they may want to experience the best it has to offer before they leave. Your tours may already be exactly what they're seeking.
But that's not to say you can't increase your appeal.
Travelers who are putting their health first may want to explore the other wellness opportunities your region offers. Adding wellness tours to your inventory might mean partnering with spas, bringing in yoga instructors, visiting hot springs, or taking a farm-to-table food tour.
Or perhaps you're in a position to offer transportation to people traveling for medical reasons.
Develop your health-related inventory with care and attention to the needs of your customers, and you'll have a niche for yourself in no time.
Step Four: Spread the word
If you're lucky, your tours may sell themselves to medical tourists — but it's best not to rely on luck alone.
First, ensure that tour description makes it clear that you're ready and eager to accommodate medical tourists. If possible, mention the relevant medical facilities by name so that customers searching for activities near their hospital or hotel find you before they find your competition. Point out the accommodations you're able to make, like wheelchair accessibility, low-impact activity, adjustments for restricted diets and so on. Highlight the healthful benefits, too.
Next, look at the facilities themselves. Some luxury hospitals are well aware of the impact of medical tourism and offer concierge desks or tourism departments. If so, that's a relationship to cultivate. Otherwise, look at nearby accommodations — including popular home rentals. Hotels, concierges, and renters in the area are probably as committed as you are to serving medical tourists.
Finally, consider working with organizations that arrange stays and procedures for medical tourists. They often function as travel agencies and may be looking for tours and activities to book for their clients. You can also look into government programs. For example, Saudi Arabia is investing in a long-term program to encourage health tourists to visit.
Medical tourists aren't always in the position to explore the cities where they seek treatment and care, but when they are, they want to expand their horizons and enjoy themselves as much as anyone else. With a few extra considerations, your company could be the one they can trust.