Thwarted by Covid, India re-emerges as a medical tourism hotspot

By Murali Krishnan - RFI
APR 3, 2022 LISTEN

India's lucrative medical tourism sector, hard hit by the pandemic, is growing again as the government lifts restrictions for travellers from across the world.

Every year, thousands of people come to India for medical treatment, mostly from Asian, European, and African countries.

Official data shows that medical tourists make up nearly 7 percent of all international tourists who visited India – about 697,453 people in 2019.

Medical tourism was valued at around US$3 billion in 2015 and was expected to grow to $9 billion in 2020 before Covid-19 struck.

“With removal of lockdown and travel restrictions, Indian medical tourism seeks progress in several critical cases like organ transplants, hair grafts and bariatric surgery,” Pratap Kumar, a cosmetic surgeon, told RFI.

“Thanks to our hospitality and rich culture, combined with modern as well as traditional medicine and therapy, we will be back on track in a few months.”

Flights resume

This week India resumed international flights after a two-year ban, brightening the outlook for the tourism industry.

The government has eased restrictions for more than 99 countries including Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Nigeria, Ghana, Mauritius, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

But even before that, some hospitals in south India had already begun receiving international cases. They consisted mainly of heart ailments, neurosurgery, orthopaedic surgery and organ transplants.

“It happened on air travel bubbles. Just goes to show how popular India is as a medical tourist destination,” Jitendra Singh, a tour operator, told RFI.

M S Guru Prasad, who heads up marketing at the Narayana Health Group, said the hospital had received up to 6,500 patients in the last six months, mostly from Bangladesh.

They sought treatment at cardiology, cancer, neurology, and urology departments.

“I am happy that I have started my cancer treatment. It was a tough for a year, but I am lucky that the travel arrangements worked out,” Mubashir Ahmad, an entrepreneur from Dhaka, told RFI.

Attractive destination

The Association of Healthcare Providers says India has been a leading destination for medical tourists along with Thailand and Singapore, and the ASEAN group of countries.

Even European nationals find it attractive to use healthcare services in India thanks to cheaper rates with low waiting times.

Medical tourism has been burgeoning in the last decade, with major players consolidating strategies to form strong networks for international travel.

Apart from hospital procedures, there is huge amount of interest among tourists in traditional medicines such as ayurveda, immunity-boosting natural products, and yoga for the treatment of chronic diseases.

“Yoga, ayurveda and wellness has been promoted over the last two years under the Ministry of Tourism's Incredible India Campaign, and places like Kerala have become popular,” a tourism official said.

The global medical tourism market generated more than $58.6 billion in 2018, with a strong projection to hit $142.2 billion by 2026, according to industry estimates.