While most travellers aim to stay out of the hospital while on vacation, a growing number of medical tourists – people who combine treatment with travel - are crossing international borders for the sole purpose of attaining medical services, which can range from a hip replacement to a tummy tuck.
Widespread air travel, mounting healthcare costs in developed countries, long waiting lists and an ageing world population have all contributed to a global explosion of medical tourism in the past decade -- and Asia is leagues ahead in terms of world market share.
More than 89% of medical tourists travelled to Thailand, India or Singapore in 2010, with Bangkok and Singapore leading the pack. But the cost of hotel rooms and treatment are both far more expensive in Singapore than in the Thai capital, making Bangkok the most popular place for medical tourism in the world. Even after the devastating floods of 2011, 19 million tourists visited Thailand in 2011, a 20% jump from 2010, with an estimated 500,000 travelling specifically for medical treatment, whereas of the 10.2 million tourists that visit Singapore each year, only 200,000 go to receive medical care.
The trend is lucrative too. Medical tourism in Thailand is growing at a yearly rate of 16%, while in financial terms the foreign medical services sector is expected to make a whopping 100 billion baht by 2015. Currently, medical tourism makes up 0.4% of the GDP, while tourism overall accounts for 6% to 7%, the third most important economic driver in Thailand. To compare, the Thai automotive industry accounted for 12% of GDP last year, while manufacturing led the way accounting for 36% of GDP in 2011.