2 million medical tourists expected by 2009


Thailand expects to welcome about two million medical tourists this year, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Department of Export Promotion.

A 38 percent increase from the 2006 figures of 1.45 million was recorded. The combined revenue from the foreign patients of THB40 billion (US$1.15 billion) in 2006 is expected to rise to THB45 billion (US$1.3 billion).

Figures have been rising in recent years. In 2002, there were 630,000 medical travellers with a combined spending of THB18 billion (US$519.7 million). In 2003, the number was 973,532 with a spending of THB26 billion (US$750.68 million). In 2004, the number rose to 1.1 million with THB30 billion (US$866.17 million) in revenue. In 2005, the number reached 1.25 million with over THB30 billion (US$866.17 million) in revenue.

The figures may be correct, but critics argue that the practice of some Thai hospitals of counting one patient staying in the country going to hospital on three days, as three medical tourists, and including non-Thai outpatients (and there is a large population of resident expatriates as well a huge numbers of visitors) who only go to hospitals for prescription drugs, as medical tourists, hugely inflate the figure to as much as three times the real numbers.

The political problems of late 2008 caused a temporary hiccup. Curiously, the figures above ignore the loss of medical travellers due to political unrest. No one knows how many medical travellers were lost, but the Bank of Thailand estimates that it deterred 3.4 million tourists from visiting the country. Assuming the political problems are solved, the trend will be year-on-year increases in medical tourists going to Thailand - the disagreement is about how many.

Hospitals involved in medical tourism report some slowdown. But, despite a triple hit of political unrest, increased airfares and recession, they claim to suffer less than expected. Phyathai Hospital weathered the rough times through its focus on Persian Gulf customers. Currently, Westerners account for 5 percent of overseas patients at Samitivej Hospital, but sees more potential in the East than the West. Some Bangkok hospitals have contracts with Gulf state governments.



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