In the past few decades, countries across the Middle East have made concerted efforts to diversify their economies, with many turning to developing their tourism infrastructure, including medical tourism.
Backed by well-developed flight routes, this sub-sector has been steadily growing in the past few years.
However, with global border closures and lockdowns since March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, travel came to a grinding halt.
The number of international tourist arrivals fell by 67 million in the first quarter of 2020, according to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), translating into about $80bn in lost travel receipts globally.
An April 2020 survey by Colliers International showed that 79 per cent of hotel owners in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region partially or fully closed their hotels due to low occupancy rates, and half of respondents expected the market to take about six to 12 months to recover.
Dubai has been among the first to welcome tourists again, with borders reopening in July 2020.
Saudi Arabia – which had a big tourism push planned before Covid-19 struck – has partially lifted flight restrictions as of mid-September 2020, and Oman is hoping to resume commercial air travel in October.
However, confidence in travel needs to return, and in the case of medical tourists, patients need to be assured of hygiene measures across their journey, at the hospitals they intend to visit, as well as the accommodation they will use.
Potential for recovery
As conditions normalise, experts believe that the health and wellness sector could help to revive travel, tourism and hospitality in the Mena region, which is well placed to capitalise on its existing healthcare infrastructure, particularly in the Gulf and markets such as Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.
An influx of patients is expected when regional borders reopen, particularly among those individuals who have delayed non-urgent treatments during the lockdown, according to CEO of Medcare Hospitals and Medical Centres, Andre Daoud.
Even now, notes director of healthcare, education and public-private partnerships (PPP) at Colliers Mena, Mansoor Ahmed, “there is a resurgence in the number of visitors seeking medical treatment”, as the restrictions on travel lift.
“People are travelling to be treated for cancer, orthopaedic, cardiology, cosmetic, health and wellness, and collaboration of hotels with hospitals for medical services and surgeries and post-surgery recovery in a hotel is a major trend in these times.”
The health and wellness sector could help to revive travel, tourism and hospitality in the Mena region, particularly in the Gulf and markets such as Jordan, Egypt and Morocco
Yet it is not enough for medical facilities to have a speciality capacity to be successful. Rather, it is the entire ecosystem within the city or country that enables medical tourism to thrive.
“Medical tourism goes beyond the actual treatment,” Daoud explains. “It is the whole journey. From the time patients present symptoms, to viewing their options, organising the visa and flights, where they can stay, and what they can do while they recover.”
Here, too, the UAE has an edge, with a Medical Tourism Index compiled by the International Healthcare Research Centre (IHRC) ranking Dubai as the top medical tourism destination in in the Arab World, followed by Abu Dhabi. At a global level, the two cities also ranked sixth and ninth, respectively.
Alongside available treatments and expertise, the IHRC index emphasises the destination environment and overall quality of services and facilities.
According to director of the health tourism department at Dubai Health Authority, Mohamed al-Mheiri, the rankings reflect “the high-quality infrastructure of the destination as well as advanced healthcare services that it can provide to foreign health travellers”.
In response to Covid-19, Al-Mheiri says that the emirate has enforced the highest compliance to Covid-19 protocols “from the airports and immigration to the hospitals and wellness centres”, while telemedicine is being used “to tide over the effects of the global pandemic”.
Inbound medical tourism is expected to bounce back soon, as the region can recover faster than other regions, providing quality service at affordable levels
CEO of Global Healthcare Resources and a contributor to the IHRC index, Renee-Marie Stephano, notes that future rankings of Arab nations could be significantly altered, depending on how well each country addresses Covid-19 and recovers economically.
“Inevitably, medical travel will rely upon PPP and solid collaboration, now more than ever before,” she says, echoing a mid-year Colliers report that similarly highlights how the region could benefit from more widespread use of PPP financing models.
The Colliers report also highlights the need for healthcare operators to continue to expand the scope of treatments, care and wellness facilities that are available if they are to boost their medical tourism appeal.
The high and rising prevalence of non-communicable diseases, including lifestyle-related conditions such as obesity and diabetes, points to a growing need for the region to focus on preventative wellness-based healthcare experiences, as opposed to treatment-based approaches.
In the coming months, Ahmed says: “Inbound medical tourism is expected to bounce back soon, as the region can recover faster than other regions, providing quality service at affordable levels to match the cost of treatment with those at alternative locations.”
As one of the first countries to reopen its airport and resume flights, the UAE will continue to hold an advantage in the Mena region, with its swift resumption of business as usual granting it a first-mover advantage over other countries in the region.