Medical tourism offers hope in global downturn

by Steven Crook ,  Taiwan Journal | 2009-03-20

For the past year, ever since the election of President Ma Ying-jeou and his overtures toward Beijing, Taiwan's tourism industry has been pinning its hopes on an influx of mainland Chinese visitors.

Whether or not vacationers from across the Taiwan Strait will come in great numbers is still moot. But even if expectations are met, the tourism industry and those government units responsible for assisting it should redouble their efforts to attract another kind of traveler: the medical tourist—a person who leaves their home country primarily to receive surgery or therapy abroad.

This market segment is more recession-proof than regular tourism, and much more lucrative per visitor. So far, Taiwan's efforts to attract medical tourists have focused on nearby markets, such as Japan, where the population is rapidly aging, and mainland China. However, a more promising market exists on the other side of the Pacific, and it is one likely to grow as the economy worsens.

Almost 50 million Americans have no health insurance, and this number will increase because unemployment is soaring. Many of these people will need surgery in the next two years, and because hospital care is so expensive in the United States, some of those whose savings are less than huge will have a stark choice: Leave the country for treatment, or go without.

Taiwan should work harder to get a slice of this pie, simply because medical tourists are worth so much more than regular sightseers. According to the Tourism Bureau's 2007 Annual Survey Report on Visitors, the average length of stay for tourists is 6.52 nights, and the average daily expenditure US$215.21.

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