South Korea hopes to multiply by three the number of travelers coming for medical purposes until 2018. Outbound markets from Russia and the UAE are seen as priority.
SEOUL- Korea has ambition to become a major destination for medical tourism within the next five years. The government has been supporting the globalization of Korean medical institutions under a brand campaign “Medical Korea”, in an effort to promote its medical sector abroad. So far, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, total number of foreign patients who visited Korea for medical treatment surpassed 110,000 last year, up from 81,789 in 2010. If everything goes according to Korea’s ambitious development plans in this niche market, the country could attract over 150,000 foreign patients this year and target 400,000 visitors for medical purposes by 2018. By comparison, in 2007, less than 8,000 foreign travelers came to Korea for medical tourism.
The government has been making efforts over the past few years to develop medical tourism as one of its new growth engines. An agreement has been for example signed with health authorities in Abu Dhabi to allow citizens from the UAE to get treatment in four contracted local facilities in four hospitals located in Seoul. According to Korea’s Health Ministry, the agreement could generate economic benefits of US$ 52 million per year. Various programs have also been introduced by the government and related state agencies to facilitate the arrival of tourists for medical purposes. Initiatives include the issuance of medical treatment visas, operation of an around-the-clock medical call centre as well as dedicated one-stop medical tourism service centres. Special visa issuance has already helped to welcome in 2011 some 8,259 for countries such as Russia, China PRC as well as Mongolia. Russia is seen as one of the market with the highest potential. An office to promote Medical Tourism has recently been opened in Vladivostok in Siberia.
Speaking with the Korean daily “The Korea Times”, Korea Tourism Organization (KTO)’s chief Lee Charm sees medical tourism as the next big thing for the nation’s tourism industry. “The prospect for medical tourism is fantastic. The area of medical service has unlimited growth potential.” Lee said. The high level of services, the blend of traditional Korean medicines with Western medical knowledge as well as a safe and reliable environment is considered as assets to futher develop medical tourism. Korea medical services are also price competitive, especially when compared to Western European countries. “We are a bit more expensive than Thailand but our environment is much better and safer,” added Lee to the newspaper.