RIJEKA, Croatia (Reuters Life!) - Maria Giudita Coffen did not mind driving for three hours to get her teeth fixed at half price in Croatia.
"I am here for the first time but I've heard from friends that it's really good and it is certainly 40 percent cheaper than in Italy," she said, sitting in the modern, light-filled waiting room at DentVitalis, one of the major dental clinics in the north Adriatic city of Rijeka.
Unlike Coffen, who came from Vallisella del Cadore in northern Italy only for dental work, many west Europeans have started to combine Croatia's cheap but high quality medical services with its spectacular Adriatic coast and the crystal clear sea.
DentVitalis owner Sime Zivkovic said there was a steadily growing number of foreigners coming. "Our prices are sometimes up to 2-3 times lower than in England," he said.
A porcelain crown costs up to 330 euros ($470), while 50 miles to the north in Trieste, Italy, it costs 700-900 euros.
Medical tourism is a global business worth around $60 billion a year, with the main hubs in southeast Asia, India, Hungary, Mexico and Costa Rica, according to TreatmentAbroad, a British-based medical tourism agency.
The sector is estimated to have potential to grow around 20 percent every year, because of the aging population in developed countries and Croatia is now seeking to grab its share of the pie, on the back of its buoyant summer tourism.
Surgeon Miljenko Bura this year formed Medical Group (www.medical-group.net; www.cromedicalnetwork.com) which brings together 36 private clinics, dentists and surgeons keen to cater to foreign patients and promote medical tourism in Croatia.
"Croatia has excellent medical staff and a long tradition. We can be competitive in every respect when it comes to (dentistry), surgery and aesthetic surgery, which are well developed here," Bura said.
He said the Medical Group planned to build a state-of-the-art medical center on the coast and has already attracted "strong interest from foreign investors keen to invest in medical tourism in Croatia."
Zoran Zgaljardic, who runs Vila Elite, a cosmetic surgery clinic in Opatija, a tourist resort 10 km northwest of Rijeka, said recession was also playing into Croatia's hands "because prices will become an increasingly important factor."
He said he was absolutely confident Croatia could win its place alongside exotic medical locations, like Thailand.
"We have the absolute advantage of proximity. We are 6 hours away from New York, 2.5 hours from London. We can start thinking about Moscow as well. I hired a Russian anesthesiologist and will try to break into the Russian market as well, he said.
"Today aesthetic surgery is affordable and while people may not afford it in New York or London, they can do it in Delhi, Bangkok or Opatija," he said, adding clients mostly wanted facial corrections, breast implants and liposuction.
TreatmentAbroad said Croatia had great potential. "Medical tourism to Croatia is increasing and the feedback from medical tourists is very positive," it said in a statement to Reuters.
But Croatia still has a long way to go. While it earned around 7.5 billion euros from tourism in 2008, local media said less than one percent of that came from medical tourism.
"We are way below what Croatia could achieve... What we now need is an organized approach and some help from the government," Bura said.
Natalie Pavlicevic-Kustic and her husband run a small dental clinic in Crikvenica, a picturesque tourist hub south of Rijeka with a 100-year old tradition of spa and medical tourism, where her father opened the first private dentistry in 1978.
She said her reputation among foreign patients spread by word of mouth, without any advertising.
"The (patients) are often very surprised by the quality of service and when they find out how affordable the prices are, they come back and they plan to combine the next summer holiday with dental work here," she said.
And in neighboring Serbia, dentists are also hoping to get their foot in the door.
"We have come late to this, but there is room for us as well -- there is potential," said Belgrade dentist Nikola Vasilic.
Many clinics in Belgrade, he added, are better equipped than those in Germany or Switzerland.
"But our problem is that we have little to offer tourists and our authorities still haven't allowed low-cost carriers to land in Belgrade," he said.
Editing by Steve Addison