Markets open up for medical tourism to Taiwan

The low prices and expertise are attracting many people from China to go to Taiwan to have surgery. That has become much easier since restrictions for Chinese tourists to Taiwan were lifted in mid-2008. But they have to come in organized groups. The government recognizes this puts off independent Chinese travellers and has recently announced that Chinese tourists will soon be allowed to travel individually to Taiwan.

Lion Travel, the country’s biggest travel agency, hopes to grow quickly by offering medical and health tourism packages to attract Chinese tourists to the island. Lion Travel set up a specialist medical tourism section last year, soon after Taiwan began to see an inflow of Chinese tourists who, for the first time in 60 years, were allowed to visit Taiwan in tour groups. The company began by operating tour groups with medical services as part of the package, attracting wealthy Chinese with slogans such as “Mommy comes to Taiwan, and returns looking like your sister.” While the number of groups is still relatively small, the company expects business to grow about 30 per cent every year for the next few years, and much more if travellers can come on their own. Lion Travel has partnered with Chang Gung Memorial Hospital, the largest private hospital on the island, and one that has an international patient centre.

Taiwan’s current policy only permits controlled tour groups from the mainland, which limits options for Chinese who seek varied medical services. Under group-travel restrictions, tourists are told where they can go and when. They cannot deviate from the set itinerary.

Dr.David Wang of the Taiwan Medical Tourism Development Association says, ”Chinese patients seeking operations can now plan ahead and book Botox treatments and cosmetic on their own schedule.” Wang travels to China once a month to promote his cosmetic surgery practice.

According to Taiwan government statistics, 972,000 tourists from China went to the island in 2009, a 195% increase on 2008. Chinese aviation officials recently announced a 10% to 15% reduction in fares for flights between the two countries. Over a million will visit this year. Exactly how many are health or medical tourists is unknown.

Richard Wu of Taiwan Task Force for Medical Travel says. “Our priority is to promote Taiwan as a brand name and then promote individual hospitals for services. That customers will now be able to travel to Taiwan individually will help. Few would join a group tour that lets everyone else know they are going for cosmetic surgery or other medical reasons.”