In a difficult market Turkey is still making progress, but why?


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Last weekend’s International Health Tourism Congress in Istanbul communicated both the continuing  success of Turkey in the tourism market in general, and highlighted  the wealth of opportunities open to Turkey within the health tourism sector. The event was organised by the Health Tourism Association of Turkey and HealthcareTour.

The Congress was attended by 470 delegates from 22 countries. The event was truly international with over 100 overseas delegates from Afghanistan, Bahrain, Jordan, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Kosovo, Azerbaijan, Iran, Libya, Sudan, USA, Malta, United Arab Emirates, UK, Greece, Germany, Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Latvia, and Syria. 40 hospitals, clinics and healthcare organisations exhibited at the event.

The Congress covered a broader range of areas within health tourism than is normal, but the content did not suffer from this. Avoiding the temptation to include a series of “promotional” presentations from hospitals, clinics and healthcare services, the Congress presented many different views of health and medical tourism  and covered areas which are often (wrongly) absent from the medical tourism conference programme,  such as patient communication.

The overall message appeared to be about “how can Turkey perform better” in the health tourism sector rather than “this is what we are doing now”

Growth in tourism...

Turkey is one of the few tourism destinations which has experienced growth in recent years in the worldwide tourism market. Despite the slowdown in the world economy, Turkey achieved 9% growth in tourism numbers in the most recent quarter of 2011.  In 2010, around 28.6 million foreigners visited Turkey; the top three nations  - Germany, Russia and the UK - accounted for 35% of the total, followed by Iran, Bulgaria and Georgia. In addition, there has been significant growth in visitor numbers from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sweden and Norway.

Health and medical tourism patterns usually relate closely to those in traditional holiday tourism. Culture, language and accessibility are an important factor in both. So, the priorities for the Turkish medical tourism sector appear to be Germany, Russia and the UK with growing interest from the Middle East.

... and steady growth in health tourism

According to an audit conducted by the Health Ministry and Gazi University, 74,093 patients came to Turkey in 2008, 91,952 in 2009 and 109,678 in 2010. The vast majority (94%) were treated in Turkey’s extensive private hospital system. Growth of around 15% is expected in 2011. The main source for medical tourists to Turkey in recent years is believed to be Germany, the Netherlands and France where the population of people with Turkish roots is high; emigrants and their offspring return to Turkey for low cost treatment.

Opportunity, opportunity, opportunity...

Possibly the greatest challenge for Turkey is deciding which opportunities it should pursue. It is spoiled for choice both in terms of the countries it should target and the health tourism services that it should focus on.

  •     Which country?

    At the crossroads of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Turkey is faced with multiple options. Draw a circle on a map, representing a three hour flight time from Istanbul and you will appreciate the problem that they face. Do the Turks look to established markets in Europe such as Germany , Russia, and the UK or do they follow their cultural links with the Arabic and Middle Eastern markets? These are very different markets, and Turkey may need to adopt a “split personality” to succeed in both. Faced with a wealth of opportunities on its doorstep, there is little reason for Turkey to pursue the medical tourism “pot of gold” in distant markets such as the USA and Asia.

  •     Which services?

    In terms of hospital, dental and medical services, Turkey has caught up with standards in other European countries; significant investment has been made in JCI accreditation by the major Turkish hospitals. This may mean very little to patients from the target countries in its catchment area, but it will have contributed to improvements in quality and standards.

Thermal tourism – the rising star of health tourism to Turkey

Thermal treatments, healing mud and spa treatments are an important part of Turkey’s health tourism offering. The country has over 1,000 thermal springs with mineral rich content, many of which are used for “thermal tourism”, one of the growing sectors in the health and wellness tourism market. There are 190 thermal results in 46 Turkish cities and towns. According to Global Spa and Wellness,  around 8 million people worldwide visit a thermal spring each year.

With its wealth of natural resources, competitive pricing and ease of access, Turkey has the opportunity to lead the world in thermal tourism. The Tourism Ministry has set 50,000 thermal tourism beds as the short term target for provision, and 250,000 beds in the medium term.

Greece, Bulgaria, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran, account for about 25 % of all wellness-related visitors. Established markets such as Germany where spa and wellness tourism is readily “adopted” represent immediate opportunities, but the potential that lies in developing markets within the Turkic Republics and the high value Middle East can be exploited in the long term.

Patient communication

Probably the liveliest debate in Istanbul was around the session on patient communication. Various contributors gave their views on the role of patient communication in health tourism and in healthcare in general.  There was an extensive Q and A session in which there was general agreement that it is an area that Turkey needs to work hard at if it wants to maximise its success. Having achieved clinical standards that would be acceptable to most patients and payors, it now needs to consider the total international patient experience.


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