Thailand right medicine for tourists

Thailand is luring tourists to its medical facilities, and UAE visitors are arriving not just for the beach resorts, but for check-ups as well.

A Thailand tourism official says Middle East visitors go to his country for a variety of services, including dental treatments and heart operations.
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Saeed Khamies, 33, is planning a trip to Bangkok in May. But it is not Thailand's culture and famous beaches that are the main attractions for the Emirati. Instead he wants to go there for a medical check-up.

Thailand's tourism authority is actively trying to attract patients from the UAE, such as Mr Khamies, as more destinations compete for a slice of the US$60 billion (Dh220.36bn) global medical tourism market. The UAE is Thailand's main source market in the Middle East for medical tourists, while about 30 per cent of visitors from the region who travel to Thailand go there for medical treatment or check-ups, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

"Thailand's a nice country, a cheap country," says Mr Khamies, who runs an export and import business in Dubai. "For the medical system it's better and people are more caring there. And you can go shopping for the family." He says he has been to Thailand three times with his parents, who now travel there regularly, combining medical check-ups with a holiday. A YouGov survey conducted for The National last year found that Thailand was the top destination for medical tourism for Emiratis, with 64 per cent saying it was their number one choice.

About 1 million people world-wide travel to Thailand each year for medical services.

"We develop services and products to meet the needs," says Suraphon Svetasreni, the governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. "We have halal food, prayer rooms, we have special floors for the Middle East people and we have trained more Arabic-speaking staff in the hospitals and hotels."

He says people from the Middle East go to Thailand for a range of services, such as dental treatments and heart operations, partly attracted by the affordability of the services.

Hospitals such as the Bumrungrad International in Bangkok are luxurious and more closely resemble a five-star hotel.

Prem Jagyasi, the managing director and chief executive of ExHealth in Dubai HealthCare City and a medical tourism consultant, says many people choose to travel to Thailand for health care because some facilities are available there that cannot be found in the UAE. Oncology, highly specialised treatments and complicated surgical procedures are some of the main treatments they seek in Thailand, he says.

"Some continue to travel because of a lack of trust in [the UAE] healthcare system," he says. "Some people go for privacy."

Dr Jagyasi says Thailand's recent political instability may have had a negative impact on its medical tourism industry.

"Thailand and Germany are two main destinations where patients are travelling at large," he says. "However, other destinations are also pitching in: India; Malaysia; Jordan; and Turkey. Thailand's recent activities, like political crises, have created a gap in consumers' minds, which has allowed other destinations to participate."

Mr Khamies believes the large numbers of patients travelling from the GCC to Thailand may be pushing up the prices of the services, although the tourism authority noted any increase in price may largely have been driven by the strengthening of the Thai baht.

Mr Svetasreni points out that medical tourism is highly lucrative for the country's economy.

"It's a lot higher than the average spending of the general tourist, that's for sure."