BANGKOK -- More than 300 Chinese travelers eagerly await a visit to Thailand for the kingdom's "medical and wellness program," despite facing three coronavirus tests, two weeks of quarantine and 500,000 baht ($15,800) in costs just to enter the country.
A woman from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen has already paid a Bangkok hospital part of the fee for in vitro fertilization, a process in which eggs are fertilized outside of the body.
"Our plan to have a baby has been put on hold due to the pandemic," said the woman, who gave her name as Mo. "My mother-in-law urged me to go to Bangkok as soon as possible before the Thai government reverses its policy. I am not putting any bet on Thailand to fully open its tourism to foreigners any time soon."
Thailand began loosening border restrictions this month, allowing in such medical tourists, foreign spouses of Thais and work permit holders. The Southeast Asian country hopes to boost its economy while avoiding imports of new COVID-19 cases. Leisure tourists remain barred from entering.
Around 1,200 people of 34 nationalities have applied to enter Thailand under the medical program which is expected to restart this month, with 1,500 accompanying family members.
"People like to come here to conduct plastic surgeries on the eyes and nose, for instance. And our dental treatments are relatively cheaper, too," said Taweesilp Visanuyothin, spokesman for Thailand's coronavirus task force.
Patients include those from Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But Chinese visitors, including couples seeking IVF, stand out in number and remain Thailand's most important customers in this field.
Chinese couples spend $8 billion yearly on IVF, per some industry estimates. Of that, more than $1 billion is spent overseas, according to figures cited in China's state-linked media.
Thailand is a main destination for Chinese who seek IVF abroad because of the country's more affordable services. The cost here ranges from 400,000 to 800,000 baht. Of the upper total, around 500,000 baht involves charges for the treatment, with the rest spent on wellness and other tourism-related services.
Demand for IVF services in China far outstrips the country's capacity, as only 460 mainland hospitals are licensed for the treatment. Chinese couples also prefer to handle the procedure in Thailand to choose the gender of their babies.
Thais largely oppose opening the border to foreigners too soon, fearing a second wave of infections. Because of that, applicants must undergo a strict process with quarantine in place before landing in the kingdom.
Applicants first need an invitation letter from a hospital where they seek treatment, using the letter to apply for a visa at their country's Thai embassy. They must show the embassy insurance policies containing COVID-19 coverage topping $100,000 and provide medical evidence that they lack the virus before boarding the plane.
Upon arrival in Thailand, they stay at the hospital for two weeks while undergoing treatment, after which they may roam the country freely within the 60-day visa period. The visa could be extended for another 30 days. Taweesilp assured the public that the hospital quarantine of 14 days will ensure patients are virus-free when they are discharged.
As of July 9, Thailand has 85 private hospitals and clinics signing up to accept foreign tourists under the medical program.
The first batch of Chinese medical tourists is expected to arrive in August, a source at privately run Phyathai 3 Hospital told the Nikkei Asian Review. The hospital charges Chinese patients at least 700,000 baht under this medical program. The package offers the option of a four-star hotel stay of 28 days and visas for three accompanying family members. Flights are not included.
Other private hospitals have detailed plans to welcome Chinese tourists for the post-pandemic era.
Bangkok Dusit Medical Services, Thailand's largest private hospital chain, in late June partnered with China's Ping An Insurance Group to provide wealthy Chinese clients with high-end care. Policies will offer services including teleconsulting, visa processing, language interpreting, ground transportation and VIP care in a private room.
Bangkok Dusit, which expects 4,000 Chinese medical tourists into Thailand over the next few years, anticipates the partnership with Ping An will contribute up to 2 billion baht in revenue this year, provided that international travel is allowed in the fourth quarter.