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Health Care

Thailand to revive its medical tourism sector amid COVID pandemic

Businesses aim to profit from government's 'living with COVID' strategy

The luxury-grade Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok has launched its first-ever COVID-19 recovery clinic. (Photo courtesy of the hospital)

BANGKOK -- With the Thai government planning to reopen the country to foreign tourists as part of its strategy of learning to live with COVID, Thai businesses aim to offer COVID-related services as well as revive medical tourism.

The upscale Bumrungrad International Hospital has launched its first COVID-19 recovery clinic, offering all COVID solutions to affluent Thais and foreigners, as the government prepares to reopen the country roughly by November.

"The COVID-19 recovery unit is a medical hub for people whose lives are affected by COVID," Artirat Charukitpipat, the hospital's chief executive officer, told reporters on last Wednesday. The Bumrungrad unit delivers care to infected patients and also treats people who have "long COVID" symptoms such as lung problems.

The hospital provides treatments for both outpatients and inpatients, including quarantine, intensive care and telemedicine for patients in home isolation. The hospital also offers rehabilitation services to patients with symptoms of long COVID to help them gain strength and recover fully.

Bangkok Dusit Medical Services, Thailand's largest private health care group, also provides a high-end alternative quarantine resort in the heart of Bangkok. Starting on Oct. 1, it offers quarantine packages of seven, 10 or 14 days, depending on the traveler's vaccination status.

Other leading hospitals in Bangkok and major cities nationwide have launched similar services to serve rising demand when the country opens up for tourists and foreign investors.

Bumrungrad delivers care to infected patients and also treats people with symptoms of "long COVID." (Photo courtesy of the hospital)

That is in line with the government's aim to promote Thai medical tourism as part of its push to position Thailand as the medical hub of ASEAN, offering high-quality medical services at competitive prices.

"We have strong potential -- with health care professionals and the unique Thai hospitality -- to be ready to be the medical hub," a senior official at the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) told Nikkei Asia.

Currently, Thailand has 64 hospitals that meet Joint Commission International accreditation standards, the highest number in ASEAN and the fourth-most in the world, making the country ready to profit from medical tourism.

The kingdom earned 59.8 billion baht ($1.8 billion) in 2019 before it was hit by the pandemic. That amounted to 3% of all revenue from foreign tourism and was rising about 3.5% annually, serving clients largely from America, Europe and the Middle East.

In normal times, central Bangkok's Khaosan Road is crowded with tourists. Tourism plays a key role in the Thai economy -- it earned 3 trillion baht ($89 billion) in 2019, accounted for 18% of the country's GDP. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

No medical tourism revenue was reported in 2020-2021 as the market plunged, due largely to the lockdown. However, the Tourism Authority of Thailand is still confident in the nation's potential for medical tourism, setting a proactive promotion plan and targeting revenue growth of 5% in 2022.

That matches global trends -- the world's medical tourism industry is forecast to be worth around $808 billion in 2021, with a growth rate of up to 7.5% per year, according to Global Wellness Economy Monitor 2017. That leaved room for Thailand to capitalize on, particularly at a time when the pandemic is providing new business opportunities.

With 27.7% of the total population now fully vaccinated with two shots, the government aims to reopen the country by applying a policy of "living with COVID." Not only are hospitals and medical-related businesses launching services to capitalize on the strategy, but mobile operators and other businesses as well are preparing for the country's opening up.

Businesses are particularly offering COVID-related services for those who cannot afford expensive luxury care from premium hospitals at a time when the need for COVID treatment could potentially rise again after the borders reopen.

That would help provide drugs and proper treatment for patients who want to practice home isolation and help reduce beds occupations in public hospitals if new COVID cases surged again when the country reopen for foreign tourists.

Advance Info Service (AIS), the country's biggest mobile operator, has joined hands with hospital chains and medical startups to offer telemedical services free of charge. The company also allows clients to use their pay points to get discounts when they buy medicine and COVID-19 insurance.

"After living with COVID for about two years, we found that Thai people are interested more in their health and want to protect themselves from COVID," said Bussaya Satirapipatkul, head of customer and service management at AIS.

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