Can Busan attract patients from Europe and America?

 

Busan, South Korea is a busy city of 3.4 million on the south-east shore of the Korean peninsula, located approximately 325 km from the nation’s capital of Seoul. It boasts the country’s most popular beaches, an array of luxury hotels, and shopping at Shinsegae, the world’s largest department store. Cultural experiences include temples, the famous Jagalchi fish market, and Gamcheon culture village. 

Busan also has a growing medical tourism industry, in line with that of the rest of the country. But will it be able to attract the big-spending American patients, who seem to eschew Korea’s “second city” in lieu of the nation’s capital? 

Attractions for Chinese, Vietnamese and Russians

Currently, according to a healthcare provider and interpreter at one of Busan’s largest hospitals, the city is a favorite destination for Chinese, Vietnamese, and Russian nationals. While cosmetic surgery is still popular amongst these patients, Busan is experiencing an increasing number of patients who travel to the city for internal medicine procedures. These account for 19% of all medical tourism in the country.

Direct, short, and cheap flights into Gimhae International Airport contribute to the popularity of Busan as a destination for medical tourism for patients from China, Vietnam and Russia.

Transport infrastructure challenges

However, Busan’s medical tourism industry is not attracting inbound American patients, who as a market, make up the second largest percentage of medical tourists entering South Korea each year. Part of the problem is the relatively small size of Gimhae airport, which sits on the outskirts of the city of Busan. There are no direct flights into this airport from the USA, forcing in-bound Americans to transfer at Incheon International Airport (Seoul) or Narita International Airport (Tokyo). 

And to make travel even more difficult for those who do choose to fly into Incheon International Airport, the transport ministry has ceased the Incheon International Airport high-speed train lines which connected the airport with other South Korean cities, including Busan. Anyone landing at Incheon must now travel into Seoul’s city center, which takes approximately an hour, and then travel onward. It is another two and a half to three hours before Busan is reached via KTX, Korea’s high-speed train service. 

This lack of easy connectivity is something that has been heavily protested by the regional governments of those areas affected, citing that it is a move that only serves to reinforce the supremacy of the capital over other regions on matters of increasing tourism. 

Language barriers

Not all of Busan’s difficulties in attracting American patients can be blamed on choices made by the country’s government or the lacklustre local airport. 

Many of the hospitals, clinics, and service providers are ill equipped to handle English speaking patients and appear not to be making a concerted effort to remedy this issue. No where was this better exemplified than at the 2019 Busan International Medical Tourism Convention, where several of the attendees were clearly focused only on Chinese, Vietnamese, and Russian clients. Marketing materials and exhibition booths had either nothing available in English or had to be asked directly for such materials as they did not display it or make it available to those browsing. Few representatives spoke English at any level of fluency to allow for in in-depth discussions about services offered. The exceptions, unsurprisingly, were the healthcare organisations who had made the journey from Seoul to take part in the convention.

In conclusion, Busan remains an unpopular destination for American and western European medical tourists visiting the country for any kind of procedure, cosmetic or not. The right partnership between travel provider, interpretation services, and hospitals or clinics could prove highly lucrative, particularly as Seoul is experiencing diminishing air quality and over population. It remains to be seen if anyone within the Busan medical tourism industry is brave enough to make the investment. 

About the author 

Stefan Raymond is a health and wellness copywriter and content strategist, working to empower individuals all over the world to live their best lives.

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