How the UAE has become one of the world’s fastest-growing medical tourism destinations

Travellers are coming to the Emirates for specialities such as dentistry, gynaecology and dermatology

A growing global population and medical advances enabling longer lives mean the medical tourism industry is set to expand. Getty Images
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The UAE is already among the world’s most popular destinations for medical tourism, but there is still plenty of room for growth, say local experts.

Medical tourism, when people travel from their country of residence to receive healthcare, is a global market worth $31.91 billion in 2023 and is expected to grow to $52.87 billion in 2027, according to GlobalData.

Countries such as Mexico, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Thailand, Turkey and India are among the top destinations for medical tourism, but the UAE is one of the fastest growing.

About $5.4 billion was spent by wellness tourists coming to the UAE in 2022, up from $2.1 billion in 2020, according to the Global Wellness Economy Monitor.

This is not only individuals coming for their own medical treatment, but also companies booking on behalf of their employees, said Stan Klyuy, chief commercial officer at corporate travel platform Tumodo.

“Over the past year, the number of bookings related to medical tourism has doubled,” Mr Klyuy told The National.

“Some companies have begun to pay more attention to the health of their employees, sending them abroad for treatment at corporate expense.”

The UAE’s focus on health care

The government has put a spotlight on health care in recent years, with the launch of several initiatives, including the Emirates Health Services Innovation Strategy 2023-2026 and the National Strategy for Wellbeing 2031.

The UAE also has the fastest growth rate for health spending in the GCC, expected to reach $30.7 billion by 2027, according to a survey by Alpen Capital.

In 2018, the Abu Dhabi Medical Tourism e-portal launched as a digital platform providing visitors with a list of dozens of health care facilities in a national medical tourism network, as well as almost 300 treatment packages from more than 170 doctors across the emirate.

In January, Dubai Healthcare City also started taking applications for its newly introduced medical visa, allowing treatment centres to apply for a visa of three to six months on behalf of their patients.

Dubai, in particular, has become a hub for patients seeking medical treatment from across the region, including countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the GCC, according to Dubai Healthcare City.

Specialisms bringing travellers to Dubai include dermatology, dentistry, gynaecology, orthopaedics, plastic surgery, ophthalmology and fertility treatments.

Dubai Health Authority reported it received 674,000 medical tourists who spent Dh992 million ($270 million) in 2022, increasing from Dh262 million the previous year.

Reasons cited for this growth are the city’s strategic location, safety levels, state-of-the-art infrastructure and high-quality amenities, as well as a recent influx of highly-skilled medical professionals.

Abu Dhabi is also a popular choice. Last year, Abu Dhabi Investment Office reported that more than 15,000 medical tourists travel to the capital annually.

Jorge A Guzman, chief executive of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi – which was recently named among the world's top hospitals, told Arabian Gulf Business Insight the number of medical tourists it received rose 20 per cent last year.

Merging health care with hospitality

When Dr Raza Siddiqui arrived in the UAE from India 25 years ago, the global medical tourism industry was only just getting started.

He had come here with Apollo Hospitals to attract healthcare travellers from the Emirates back to India, but he ended up staying to help bring visitors here instead.

“Medical tourism has got two components: health care and hospitality,” Dr Siddiqui, who is now chief executive of Arab Healthcare Group, told The National.

“Dubai and the UAE was perceived at that time as a preferred destination for hospitality.”

Seeing huge potential in the UAE, Dr Siddiqui helped set up RAK Hospital in 2007, using the same designers as America’s Mayo Clinic, with an ambition to eventually achieve the same level of international recognition.

The hospital in Ras Al Khaimah has since become a mainstay of the UAE’s medical tourism industry and is set to triple its capacity by the end of this year to keep up with demand.

There is still plenty of room for growth across the country, said Dr Siddiqui. “By our calculations, about 6,000 to 7,000 medical tourists go through Dubai Airports every day to go to other destinations.

“They are going to India, Thailand, Singapore, Germany and the UK. They could be coming here.”

One patient is equal to 10 leisure tourists in terms of money spent and the country’s reputational boost, he added. “That one patient also is not coming alone, they are coming with at least one relative who is going to stay at a hotel.

“If you are doing 1,000 [hospital] beds, you are generating revenue equal to 10,000 hotel [rooms]. That is one of the best non-oil economy alternatives for the country.

“And the image it gives you is unimaginable, because if you go to a country for health care, then [that country is] in the bracket of the most advanced countries in the world.”

Specialist health care and utilising the Metaverse

Dr Shanila Laiju, group chief executive of Medcare Hospitals and Medical Centres, says it is a combination of quality infrastructure, skilled medical professionals, affordable treatment options, advanced procedures and short waiting times that draws tourists to the Emirates.

The country also offers “a harmonious blend of health care and tourism”, she said.

The group has more than 20 facilities across Dubai and Sharjah, and has witnessed huge growth in demand specifically from patients with rare and complex diseases.

For example, Medcare Women and Children Hospital has become known for its gene therapy for spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic degenerative neuromuscular disease.

The facility has administered 100 gene therapy infusions to children with the disorder, 90 per cent of whom travelled from Turkey, but also from Romania, Russia, Belarus, Nepal and Iran.

One of the ways the group is catering for this growing medical tourism market is by opening a facility, Medcare Royal Hospital, near Dubai International Airport later this year.

It also offers telehealth services, which include instant appointments with doctors and online hospital viewings.

“Patients can view the hospital facilities live in the metaverse before making an informed decision to have their surgical procedures done at Medcare,” said Dr Laiju.

Primed for future growth

As the global population continues to grow and advances in healthcare allow people to live longer, the medical tourism industry is set only to expand.

“The GCC’s high prevalence rates of lifestyle-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes indicate that many future medical and wellness tourists are likely to come from neighbouring nations,” said Dr Laiju.

“To address this need, we must also work on creating healthcare experiences that prioritise well-being above treatment.”

Critical shortages in the region’s healthcare industry must also be addressed, she added, including raising awareness of preventive care.

“The improvements to healthcare services will help residents of the community while also preparing the region for future growth.”

Updated: April 08, 2024, 3:03 AM