South Korea aims to become Asia's new medical travel hub

by AFP ,  AFP | 2008-04-28

SEOUL (AFP) — After building its economy on semiconductors, ships and steel, South Korea is touting its surgeons' skills in the beauty business to carve out a new niche. Helped by active government support, a boom in cosmetic surgery and a pool of experienced surgeons, the country wants to surpass Singapore, Thailand and India to become Asia's new medical tourism hub.

"In foreign countries, the combination of the health and tourism industries is emerging as a new future-oriented industrial sector," President Lee Myung-Bak said at a recent policy briefing.

"South Korea, which has world-class medical staff, has failed to capitalise on the combination of health and tourism, mainly due to excessive regulations."

Health Minister Kim Soung-Yee said recently the government would step up efforts to win parliamentary approval of a bill that would legalise profit-oriented medical brokerages linking hospitals and patients. Even without local insurance benefits, foreigners find high-quality services cheaper than in the United States or Japan, Kim said.

"And for cosmetic surgery, Korea has already become popular with the wealthy of Southeast Asia."

The health ministry helps hospitals in marketing or providing consultations and is pushing to simplify visa issuance for overseas patients. Hospitals have set an ambitious goal of 100,000 foreign patients annually by 2012. In March last year 36 hospitals and state agencies formed the Council for Korean Medicine Overseas Promotion (CKMP) to tap the fast-growing market.

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