What is limiting the return of medical tourism to South Korea?

Generic image of South Korea

As the global medical tourism market is again growing, South Korea’s strict regulations on medical tourism are hindering the industry’s growth.

Countries worldwide and the medical community are making all-out efforts to gain an edge in a market that is expected to grow significantly in the next three years. According to Consultancy-me, an online news platform for the Middle East’s consulting industry, the size of the global medical tourism market was US$105 billion in 2019 and shrank to US$71 billion in 2020. It predicts the market is expected to grow to US$182 billion in 2025.  IMTJ estimated the global medical tourism market to be US$15-20 billion in 2019.

Thailand plans to introduce a new medical visa that allows for a maximum stay of one year from 2023. Malaysia is spending large sums to promote the country, and India is heavily promoting medical value tourism through its Heal in India initiative.  South Korea no longer has medical tourism targets for numbers or revenue, while seemingly having no post pandemic medical tourism strategy.

Some Korean medical experts say that Korea’s medical tourism industry must ease regulations if it intends to secure a top position in the medical tourism market. It must allow telemedicine for foreigners and ease requirements for medical tourism visas, while maintaining its world-class medical technology and low-cost competitiveness compared to developed countries. Easing visa requirements for medical tourism is seen as most important.

Foreigners seeking treatment in Korea usually enter Korea with a C-3-3 visa (short-term medical tourist) or a G-1-10 visa (treatment and recuperation). The government gives C-3-3 authorisation to foreign patients who wish to enter the country for medical treatment or recuperation at a Korean hospital. C-3-3 visa recipients must receive an invitation from the hospital where they plan on receiving treatment, and the length of stay needs to be less than 90 days. G-1-10 are given to foreign patients, their accompanying family members, and caregivers who wish to enter the country for the purpose of treatment or recuperation at a domestic medical institution without being invited by the host institution. Those that receive the G-1-10 visa can stay in Korea for up to a year.

Some industry sources claim that it has become nearly impossible to receive a C-3-3 visa or a G-1-10 visa. Politicians argue that some foreigners are exploiting the system, gaining visas then disappearing to work as illegal immigrants.

While this was seen to be happening with Mongolians who visited Jeju Island in June for medical tourism, refusing to issue visas to prevent such exploitation is not the answer and there is little evidence that this problem is real. If issuing medical tourism visas continues to be restricted, it will inevitably hurt Korea’s medical tourism industry.

The Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI) is promising new plans for Korea’s medical tourism industry in 2023.

The Medical Korea website provides a one-stop service on healthcare in South Korea for foreign patients, such as medical tourism visa issuance requirements, medical institutions, and health system information. The website is in four languages, English, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian. It is a reactive effort to support the medical travel sector, compared to the proactive efforts of competitors to promote their destinations in other countries.

For an in-depth profile of medical tourism sector in South Korea, visit the IMTJ Country Profiles.