<>Singapore travel agents are finding it hard to
swallow SingaporeMedicine, a multi-agency government effort
that includes the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to promote
Singapore as a leading healthcare services
Allan Tsang, chairman - inbound of the National Association
of Travel Agents Singapore (NATAS) said that
SingaporeMedicine benefits the healthcare providers such as
the hospitals, which stand to make higher margins.</>
However, he said the costs of travel agents handling
queries linked to healthcare services in Singapore outweigh
the yields earned.
Tsang said, "Basically, we did try to do the programme
in Indonesia but it does not justify our efforts such as
the process of making travel arrangements and answering
queries. We cannot do this business as when we do the
yields are very low.
"Instead of us spending time promoting, it is better
that the client goes to the supplier direct.
"This is like the hip-hop pass where there are a lot of
queries but no business materialises."
Then there are other travel agents who do not quite
agree with the principal of linking healthcare services and
Matthew Pillay, vice president marketing, Uniglobal
Holidays comments, "medical considerations should not be
linked to tourism and should not be used to boost tourism."
He added that these were "two different things
However he said he saw medical tourism as a niche market
and not one that would bring in the masses, "the way STB
promotes it that leisure tourists also go for a check-up as
part of their holiday here.
"But it should not be used as a tool to bring in
And Pillay pointed out that travel agents could benefit
from co-ordinating the travel arrangements of the patients
and their companions.
Other travel agencies interviewed were also lukewarm to
the idea of selling health tourism.
Laurence Lee, director, Hong Thai Travel Services said,
"Health tourism is a source of revenue but not to a great
extent. It is more like a niche market as the spas
'It all depends on what the health tourists want and for
us to provide the services and products, it's very
subjective for example whether they want basic
health-screening or have another request.
"We have tie-ups with overseas agents and it depends on
them whether they want to promote heath tourism and it
depends on the markets mostly we see Indonesians.
"Personally, I believe the future market will be from
China, they have older people with more expenditure. In a
few years time, they will come for health checks."
Lee further commented, "I believe we are facing
competition from Thailand and Malaysia and medical tourists
go there as they are cheaper, the STB is trying to educate
them. Service wise we are okay."
"We need to find a way to locate the class of
middle-aged tourists with higher income who are concerned
about their health."
And for some the opportunities posed by health tourism
has not made an impact said Jeron Ong, sales manager from
Orient Explorer, "We have not looked at health tourism as
we focus more on conventions and incentives."
<>Nonetheless looking at Singapore's 'bill of
health', the Republic has been a leading choice as a
healthcare services destination for the region, with more
than 200, 000 international patients seeking medical
Singapore is taking the health of global citizens
seriously and STB is actively driving the growth of
This may prove to be an astute move considering Asia's
booming population, expected to grow from 3.2 billion in
2002 to 5.6 billion in 2050 and the accompanying rise in
life expectancy and economic affluence, demand for quality
healthcare is set to surge in Asia.
Dr Chan Tat Hon, assistant chief executive
(International Programme) and programme director
(Healthcare Services), STB said, "Singapore with its
well-established reputation for medical excellence, is
poised to tap on this escalating demand to entrench itself
as a regional healthcare hub featuring world-class
facilities and expertise."
Hence, Chan states heath tourism is a viable tourism
product, "there is great potential in developing
Singapore's heathcare services as a viable reason for
visitors to come to Singapore."
Target markets include Indonesia and Malaysia, which are
currently the biggest and Singapore Medicine, launched last
October aims to support local healthcare providers in
maintaining this lead. Emerging markets of Indochina,
South-east Asia, China, South Asia and the Middle East are
also being targeted.
Dr Chan said, "For new markets, we will work with our
healthcare providers to create awareness of Singapore's
healthcare services through various marketing
"This would be through our collaterals, website,
roadshows and familiarization trips for the media or
foreign doctors to visit Singapore's healthcare
He added that Singapore is able to position itself as
"the preferred healthcare destination" due to three areas:
the Republic is renowned for its medical specialties in
cardiology (heart), opthamology (eye) and oncology
(cancer), status as a world-class biomedical hub in Asia
and a "hotspot for medical professionals," who are drawn
here to practise.
Singapore also receives heightened exposure, Chan said
when it hosts medical conferences, symposiums and training
seminars. Such meetings include the Asian/Pacific Congress
of Cardiology (APCC); the Asian Australasian Congress of
Neurological Surgery and TransplantAsia 2004.
Hence with all this, how would it contribute to the
health of Singapore's tourism?
STB's statistics reveal that three percent of all
visitors to Singapore are for medical purposes. Apart from
healthcare, half of the expenditure by medical visitors is
on accommodation, transport, F&B, shopping and
non-medical aspects of their stay. A patient also has two
companions who also contribute to tourism spending.
In 2001, the number of visitors to Singapore seeking
medical treatment was 189, 730 and in 2002 the figure rose
to 211, 600 an increase of 11 percent. In 2003, the world
was hit with the SARS epidemic with economic, social and
political ramifications. Singapore's health authorities
moved at a feverish pace to control this dire situation and
in the process demonstrated the excellence of the
healthcare services and dedication of its health
<>The "efficient and transparent manner in which the
Singapore government dealt with the SARS crisis" said Chan
earned the respect of the international community and does
"give them peace of mind that they are in good hands when
they use Singapore's healthcare services."
Hence when detractors of Singapore label it as "too
sterile, organised and orderly" this has evolved into a
trump card for Singapore's health tourism.
The island however is not one to rest on its laurels and
plans to attract one million international patients
annually to Singapore for healthcare services by the year
This could potentially generate some S$2.6 billion
(US$1.5 billion) for the economy, adding an approximate one
percent to Singapore's GDP. It also has the potential of
creating 13,000 new jobs of which a high proportion are for
medical, nursing and paramedical professions.
The NTO is working in close co-operation with the
healthcare providers and local travel agents to bring these
targets to fruition.
Chan said, "Visitors coming to Singapore consume a whole
spectrum of healthcare services. These range from wellness
and primary healthcare such as medical spa and health
screening to secondary, tertiary and quaternary care such
as surgery and transplants.
"For all these services, there is great potential for
them to be packaged with airfare, accommodation, F&B
and leisure activities. Travel agents play a major role in
ensuring that healthcare visitors as well as their families
and relatives who often accompany them can have a seamless
and comfortable experience while in Singapore."
Raffles Medical Group has seen a steady increase in
foreign patient load of 30 percent currently at Raffles
Hospital, a rise of five percent over last year.
And both Raffles and Parkway Healthcare Group say they
work in close co-operation with travel agents when dealing
with foreign patients.