Healthcare industry expects medical tourists to return to India soon

According to the tourism ministry, India ranked as the third most popular tourism destination in 2015 when the industry was worth $3 bn.
Earlier this month, Hindi film actor Sonu Sood flew 12 Filipino children suffering from acute liver disease in a charter flight for an urgent liver transplant in hospitals here. Around five of them were admitted to Max Healthcare and seven to Apollo Hospital. 

Such symbolic moves have uplifted the industry spirit. It expects the medical tourists to trickle in to India from October-November.  The industry and the government are working on standard operating procedures to ensure safe passage for the medical tourists.

Governments have started working out bilateral or tripartite travel bubble arrangements with member countries. The smaller bubbles are the precursors to resuming international air travel. 

According to the tourism ministry, India ranked the third most popular tourism destination in 2015 when the industry was worth $3 billion. It was estimated to touch $9 billion (close to Rs 70,000 crore) by 2020. In 2020, however, things went downhill because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Revenues completely dried up from this channel. 

Kapil Banga, analyst with ICRA, said for large corporate chains, the revenue from medical tourists would be 10-12 per cent and large players account for bulk of the medical tourists. The volumes, Banga felt, are lower than 10 per cent of overall footfalls. The average revenue per occupied bed is high for medical tourists as they come for complex procedures. 

Dilip Jose, chief executive of Manipal Hospitals that runs hospitals primarily in southern states of India, explained there are typically two types of medical tourists — from countries where health care infrastructure is poor and another is of people from rich countries but are under-insured. The first category is the larger category as far incoming traffic is concerned. 

“We expect to see some traffic in October as bilateral air bubbles gain pace. We may begin to see some trickling in of tourists from countries like Oman, Kenya, Malaysia, etc,” Jose said.  He said if this model worked and the connectivity picked up, then by the end of the financial year, the sector would be around 60 per cent of the pre-Covid levels. 

Medical tourist revenues account for roughly 10 per cent of Manipal Hospitals’ revenue. 

Some key players, however, feel the downturn due to the pandemic might help boost footfall of medical tourists. 

Abhay Soi, chairman and managing director of Max Healthcare, said the global economic crises, thanks to the pandemic, might prove to be a shot in the arm for India emerging as a hotspot for medical tourism.  

“The Covid crisis has hit every economy in the world. When these economies shrink, there will be a search for value, and one won’t get any greater value than you get in India,” he said.  Max gets about 12-13 per cent of its revenues from medical tourism. 

Hospitals have kept their patient outreach programme going. 

Alok Roy, chair at Ficci (health services committee) and chairman of Medica Group, said fear of infection was not what was keeping medical tourists from coming to India. Things will pick up once air travel normalises.  

Arun Sangwan, co-founder of the Medical Travel Representatives Association, said: “Our protocols and plans need to be in place for  safe handling of patients. However, all this will increase the total cost of treatment in India, compared to pre-Covid cost,” he said.

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