Medical tourism offers travel firms untapped growth

Thu Mar 7, 2013 10:22am EST
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By Maria Sheahan and Andreas Kroener

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - A dentist's office may not be everyone's idea of a perfect holiday destination.

But a growing number of Europeans are travelling abroad for medical treatment to save money, or maybe to combine a visit to the doctor with some sightseeing, creating a fast-growing market that is still largely untapped by traditional tour operators.

"It was simply cheaper for me to go to a dentist in Hungary," said a 42-year-old physical therapist from Berlin, who did not want to give his name.

He chose the clinic near Budapest from an Internet advertisement, enticed by hundreds of euros in savings compared with the same treatment in Germany. He was happy to find when he got there that the clinic was clean, the staff competent and the work thorough.

Greater efforts by clinics to lure customers from abroad for routine procedures are creating new opportunities for tour operators looking to expand into faster-growing markets.

Helmut Wachowiak, a professor at the International University of Applied Sciences at Bad Honnef in Germany, says the global medical tourism market is worth $40 billion to $60 billion and is growing at about 20 percent per year.

"The medical tourism market is still very much passing by traditional tourism, though it is increasingly recognized as an opportunity for the travel industry," said Wachowiak, an expert on tourism management.

People travel abroad for medical treatment for various reasons: it's cheaper, they face a long wait at home, or the treatment they want is not available in their own country.   Continued...

A woman lies on an operating table during a facelift surgery at a private plastic surgery clinic in Budapest, March 1, 2012. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo