Uganda: Health Tourism, the Latest Global Craze

by Mariam Annat ,  East African Business Week | 2008-03-17

If people are honest, they will admit that the first thing that comes to mind when they talk about tourism, is- animals. Tourism however goes beyond the flora and fauna to larger aspects of life and society.

Tourism includes, Cultural, Archeological, Agritourism, Sports, Sex tourism among others. Medical tourism or, Health Tourism, as it's some times called, is a burgeoning industry that, thanks to increased rates of health insurance is fast becoming a popular venture.

In India medical tourism is the third largest net earner of foreign exchange and contributes 6% to the gross domestic product (GDP) and employs the largest number of people. A study by McKinsey predicts that medical tourism in India in 2006 was worth $333 million and by 2012, will be brining in US$ 2.3billion yearly.

In East Africa medical tourism is a new idea with a potential to blossom thanks to nature's endowments. However, with the introduction of gymnasiums, spas and generally improving hospital facilities, health tourism is growing by leaps and bounds. In Kenya, tourists visit the famous Chale Island where people's bodies are covered with a special kind of mud believed to be medicinal.

In Uganda, the main attraction has been hot springs like Ihimba hot springs found on Kabale-Katuna road, 8 km out of Kabale, Sempaya Hot Springs found in Bundibugyo in the western part of Uganda, Kitagata hot springs, Nyamasizi hot springs, Buranga hot springs.

Hot springs are said to have high mineral content, containing everything from simple calcium to lithium, and even radium and hot springs have become a popular tourist destinations, and locations for rehabilitation clinics for those with disabilities.

Herbal medicine has become a lucrative option to most patients especially those who have lost hope in 'modern' medicine. Kenyan forests like Kakamega has a granary of herbal medicinal leaves, backs and roots to resource from.

In Uganda, we have the Mabira forest, which duplicates the Kenyan Kakamega forest and Mount Kilimanjaro forest in Tanzania. Plants like Aloe Vera, which grow in most East African countries, have attracted international attention.

An estimated 500,000 Americans travelled out of the country to get medical treatment and dental work in 2005 and the numbers continue to rise. An increase in medical tourists can be accorded to high medical bills in ones country of origin even with the cost of the plane ticket, lodgings are added in, treatment in a foreign country can still be significantly cheaper than back home.

For example, a bone-marrow transplant in America costs $2.5 million. Doctors in India can do it for $26,000. Heart-bypass surgery runs $60,000 to $150,000 in USA while in Asia; the average cost is $10,000. In some places, the cost can be as little as a tenth of what it would cost to have the same treatment in your home country.

A patient is saved from the un necessary waiting at home yet doctors abroad are more than willing to operate or in the cases of natural cures like hot springs, the place is always open and ready to receive. Most surgeries whether major or cosmetic can be scheduled within a few days or weeks if done in a less overburdened foreign hospital.