Can Iran fulfil its potential as a medical and health tourism destination?

If the political deal with the USA goes through and removes international sanctions, Iran has great potential as a medical tourism destination. Their offering of low-cost and high quality healthcare is attracting medical tourists from neighbouring countries, however due to political tensions and uncertainty the promise of western tourists remains to be seen.

If the political deal with the USA goes through and removes international sanctions as well as improving relations with Arab countries, Iran has great potential as a health and medical destination.

Ironically, local politics and conflict mean that it is getting business from counties where local medical offerings are poor or non-existent, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly after those countries have seen the withdrawal of military medical centres on whom many locals relied for free treatment.

For the last few years official bodies and local hospitals have claimed that Iran gets 30,000 medical tourists plus 200,000 health and wellness tourists, but have the grace to admit that they really have no idea on figures, as there are no statistics, so it is just a wild guess!

Iran’s Health Tourism Committee has produced rules and regulations for tourist healthcare service centres. Those hospitals and clinics that want to offer health tourism services to foreign citizens need to acquire licenses from both the Ministry of Health and the Iranian Tourism Organization.

The government now offers health service training to employees of tourism agencies and encourages hospitals to open international patient wards and centres. Iranian hospitals that hold a medical tourism license from the Ministry of Health arrange airport transfers as well as accommodation.

High costs of private treatment and low quality of health systems in many countries in the region means a demand for health and treatment services in Iran. Those from Islamic countries are particularly attracted to Iran as they feel more comfortable there than in certain Arab or Asian countries.

The geographical location of Iran, existence of numerous hot and cold mineral springs in various parts of the country as well as low-cost and high quality health services in the fields of fertility treatment, stem cell treatment, dialysis, heart surgery, cosmetic surgery, eye surgery and more provide good opportunities to attract health tourists.

Iran has failed to attract a high number of health and medical tourists due to various reasons. Tourism in general and health tourism in particular have until recently been overlooked by the state, while poor transportation system and out of date spa facilities are among other difficulties

A serious shortage of appropriate and good quality accommodation, as well as a work force unused to dealing with foreign tourists are other weaknesses. Poor or no promotion and marketing of health tourism, limited activity of travel agencies on health tourism both at home and in countries with potential tourists are among other flaws.

Infrastructure problems of old hospitals, shortages of medical equipment due to international sanctions and few facilities for health tourists, plus a high local inflation rate, all make development of health tourism.

There is still a negative attitude on the subject from many government authorities, policy makers, local communities and religious leaders towards development of tourism and arrival into the country of non-Muslim foreigners in particular.

The skewed image of Iran presented by certain biased Western media and politicians, plus tension and insecurity in the Middle East, all help to scare away and reduce the number of international health tourists willing to travel to the region in general and Iran in particular. This is why Iran is concentrating on local and regional markets. Marketing to the USA or most European countries is too much of an uphill struggle.

Thanks to its geographical position, the conditions in neighbouring countries, reasonable prices and advanced medical facilities, Iran is becoming a destination for Islamic and regional medical tourists. An increasing number of hospitals in Iranian cities offer medical and healthcare services to foreign health and medical tourists. Iran has always had a reputation for very advanced healthcare.

Those supporting the local medical and health tourism industry want the government to make plans to promote Iran in Central Asia as well as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. They want planning to address renovation and establishment of health tourism-related regions, facilities and attractions including tourist complexes, hospitals, spa facilities, modern transportation, accommodation, plus access to new technologies, the Internet, and international phone services to encourage foreign medical tourists.

The biggest challenge is to convince health tourists from Western countries of their security and safety in the country.

In the longer term, there is a need for private sector to take over some areas of health treatment from the state so that the country can improve the quality of services and reduce prices. Political factors allowing, this could also mean attracting foreign investors to provide financial support for health tourism projects.

Another way forward is issue special visas for medical tourists and their relatives and provide them with concierge services help them with residential and recreational facilities and other assistance they might need including translators.