Many countries are considered prime sites for medical tourism, including Thailand, India, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Image Credit: Francois Nel /Gulf News

Dubai: It is little surprise that when health care in the West became more expensive, more and more people began shopping around not only for cheap flights, but also for hospitals and medical treatment.

The industry has been a cash cow in Thailand for over a decade, with private hospitals in Bangkok, Phuket and various other hubs doing a roaring trade from European, British and American clients looking to avoid either high fees or long waiting lists at home.

But today it is not just Westerners who are looking overseas for affordable health care; residents of the Gulf too have become targets for clinics in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Attracted by short flight times and a high disposable income amongst residents in the region, Thai medical service providers are upping their profile in the Gulf. At this year's Arabian Travel Market, for example, hospitals and clinics from the country were in abundance.

Apiwat Ourairat, managing director of RSU Healthcare, says that a majority of his clients come from the Middle East, with the majority coming from Oman, followed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain.

Affordable options

"It's more affordable and coupled with the tourism aspect they can bring their families and they get treatment and a few days holiday," he tells Gulf News at his stand at ATM.

RSU specialises in dental services and eye treatment and surgery, as well as a significant cosmetic surgery division. Ourairat works with travel agents and hotels to put together packages that are around 20 per cent cheaper than the treatment alone in the Gulf.

Given the potential market, it was no surprise that India's regional tourism chief Vikas Rustagi spoke so animatedly to reporters on Tuesday about the potential of the country's medical tourism market.

Rustagi estimated that it could be worth an estimated $2.4 billion by 2012, and cited a report by research firm RNCOS that claimed that medical tourism in the country grew by 27 per cent between 2009 and 2012. He also estimated that India's share of the global market could clock in at around 2.4 per cent at the end of next year.

"You are not only able to get good treatment, but you can do it in the backwaters of Kerala or in some beautiful place very close to nature," he added.

Nadejda Popova, an anal-yst with Euromoney, said in a recent presentation on the changing dynamics of the global tourism market that medical tourism was increasingly coming to the fore.

"Medical tourism has been growing from niche to mainstream," she said.

But Popova pointed out that it is not only countries in South East Asia that are becoming medical tourism hubs, the countries of the Gulf have also begun to realise that their services are marketable.

Short flying time from Europe, the UK and, relatively, the US, are increasingly bringing patients from the West into Gulf hospitals, as well as Arab patients to other Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia.

"We need to take into consideration that there has been substantial growth in Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE," she said.

She added that medical tourism in the UAE was worth $5 billion in 2010, a huge market for development. The government, meanwhile, is looking to boost its share of what is a lucrative market by adding another 54,000 hospital beds. Egypt, Qatar and Morocco are also potential markets, she said, particularly as health care in the US continues to be inaccessible for so many people.

Although while Qatar was taking the initiative, Egypt and Morocco were less developed.

For Ourairat's part, the DSA managing director is not concerned about competition from ambitious new jurisdictions such as India and the UAE. "There is work for everyone."