Health of the wellness market


As the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) lays down new strategies aimed at doubling the number of international tourist arrivals to 20 million by 2008, its marketing efforts will play a key role in promoting Thailand as a healthcare destination for well-heeled tourists.

While Thailand’s promotion of health products attracted more that one million health tourists last year, its strategy will now concentrate on boosting that number even further by promoting key destinations and integrating medical tourism with more traditional forms of medicine.

Thailand’s northern city, Chiang Mai is one such destination where promotional plans are now being formulated that stress drawing upon the strong traditions of northern Thailand’s unique culture, local wisdom and knowledge to boost the spas and health treatments which are estimated to have a total business potential of 2.4 billon baht (US$62.5 million) annually.

The TAT’s plan will be quite simply to stress the importance of non-chemical herbal products, supplementary foods and treatments, and capitalise on the trend of prevention rather than cure. Integrated campaigns will stress these products alongside more high-quality, low-cost medical, dental and therapeutic services.

“Healthcare tourism is an important aspect of the TAT’s international marketing plan which has a significant focus on niche markets like medical check-ups and spa,” said TAT’s deputy governor Phornsiri Manoharn.

According to Phornsiri, the TAT is assisting Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health and the Ministry of Commerce to implement a national strategy to develop Thailand’s strong potential in the field of health and wellness. Destinations targeted for the “blitz” plan are Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and the resort island, Koh Samui.

“As the Thai spa concept takes root worldwide, it is anticipated to lead to an increase in demand for Thai herbal products like herbal teas, food supplements, cosmetics and beauty products as well,” she added,

Chiang Mai has about 10 private hospitals with a total of 2,250 beds and 700 doctors. The hospitals are estimated to be operating at only 50 percent capacity over all. The city is also home to 77 dental clinics which in 2003 had combined revenues of around 420 million baht.

In addition the city has more than 30 spas which generate estimated annual revenue of about 300 million baht. It is also becoming a centre for traditional massage, with more than 100 massage centres employing more than 1,000 workers and combined annual revenue estimated at 500-600 million baht.

“We are working with the private sector and the TAT to come up with packages offering health check-up programmes, spa treatment, and Thai massage,” said Chiang Mai provincial Health Department deputy chief, Dr. Paisarn Thanyawinitkul.

As products develop, Paisarn said the Ministry of Public Health would have a critical role to play in ensuring delivery of high standards of service and care.

“We have set up guidelines and measures for the private sector

in order to build these standards, create new business for the province, generate income, develop human resources and add value

to local herbal products,” Paisarn said.

Manufacturers of herbal medicines in Chiang Mai and the surrounding region have also set up a group to raise the quality of locally-made products to global standards.

Chiang Mai’s health office is planning to establish the strengths of each of the Chiang Mai hospitals, and then develop them to attract target markets from neighbouring countries and South Asia, as part of the short-term promotion plan. This will soon be expanded to include more international markets as the facilities and human resource capabilities improve.

Elsewhere the medical establishment is also cashing in on the health care bandwagon. Bangkok Phuket Hospital, located in Thailand’s premier tourist destination, is planning to invest 500 million baht to increase the number of beds to accommodate the growing demand for medic-tourism services.

In addition to tertiary care services, the hospital houses a heart centre, a rejuvenation centre, aesthetic centre and dental centre to both Thai nationals and tourists.

“Thailand has more potential to promote itself as a health-tourism hub of the region than its neighbours because of its attraction to tourists,” said the hospital’s director, Dr. Suraphong Lookhanumanjao.

“The country’s healthcare services are also more competitively priced than many of our neighbours,” he added.

An example, said Dr. Suraphong, was the correction of myopia which in Thailand could be done in one eye for between 30,000 and 40,000 baht. In Singapore, he said the same operation could cost double. For that price patients could also negotiate a package deal in Phuket that also included accommodation at a luxury resort.

In the last two years the hospital’s tour operating arm, Phuket Health and Travel, has successfully targeted a growing number of well-heeled tourists who have joined their so-called ‘health tours’.

“We now provide six main packages, combining medical services and accommodation,” said Piyarat Kulvanich, sales and marketing director for Phuket Health and Travel.

Each package, she said, offered different conditions such as the occupancy period, grade of resort and season. For example, during the low season from April to November, the hospital offers three days, two nights packages for tooth-whitening services with a room at the Jiva Resort and Spa for 21,000 baht.

Guests wishing to extend their stay to a week pay 40,000 baht, which rises to 50,000 baht during the high season.

In addition the hospital offers translators for up to 15 languages and owns 11 clinics in resorts and hotels located around Phuket.

Thailand’s success in promoting health tourism is now catching the eye of other Asia destinations wanting to take advantage of their own competitive medical services.

The confederation of Indian Industry (CII) praised Thailand’s success in promoting medi-tourism recently, saying that through aggressive international marketing the TAT had tapped into a new and important source of tourism revenue.

“It has also integrated with traditional medicine and service integration with tourism,” it said, adding that India should also replicated the Thai model and capitalise on its strengths to become a world player in medical tourism.

“With yoga, meditation, ayuryeda, allopathy, and other systems of medicine, Indian offers a unique basket of services to an individual that is difficult to be matched by other countries,” the CII concluded.

Whether India’s attempts to promote health tourism will be successful remains to be seen, but as far as Thailand is concerned, affordable prices, efficient service and the high-quality of private hospitals will continue to be winning factors in the country’s promotion of health tourism.

“The ‘Thai-ness’ – the way that we really welcome patients to Thailand, the way that hospitals consider them as guests, plus the quality of our doctors – all combine to make medi-tourism, and health tourism in general, a unique experience in Thailand,” said Phornsiri.

According to the TAT, 43.2 percent of arrivals to Thailand last year from Asia/Pacific countries participated in some form of health tourism. Key markets included Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

Tourists from key European markets also took advantage of Thailand’s health products with 44.5 percent of total arrivals from Europe combining their holidays with some form of health-related business.

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