Medical tourism can be a highly lucrative industry, especially for developed nations neighboring, or at least well-connected to, developing nations. Quality remains the biggest factor in attracting medical tourists, as many developing nations simply don’t yet have the technological or human resources to provide high-quality, cutting-edge care. Cost, surprisingly, can also work in favor of medical tourism in developed nations. While high-end care might be available at home, it might be relatively cheaper abroad. China, with its massive population and lack of a robust national insurance framework, has become a major source market for medical tourism, especially for South Korea. The South Korean government has recognized the huge potential for Chinese medical tourism and, despite the ongoing lack of tourists due to the THAAD dispute and Beijing-imposed travel ban, is stepping its efforts in marketing South Korea’s medical system in China with the opening of a new marketing office in Shanghai.

South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare is opening an office in Shanghai to help South Korean smaller to medium-sized hospitals and clinics promote themselves in China

According to the South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, the office will open in September. This branch of the ministry will serve as a liaison between the Chinese market and small to medium-sized South Korean medical institutions looking to attract Chinese medical tourists. These tourists undoubtedly spend more money and stay longer than Chinese leisure tourists.

While Chinese tourism to South Korea has been growing dramatically in recent months, it’s still a long way off from the heady days of 2015 and early 2016. In June, for example, South Korea reported year-over-year growth of 49 percent, with Chinese arrivals sitting at around 380,000. Still, it’s a far cry from the almost 760,000 that traveled to South Korea in June of 2016 before Beijing imposed the ban on the sale of tour groups that included South Korea as a destination.

South Korea is experiencing fast growth in Chinese tourism in 2018, but the figures are still a far cry from 2016 numbers

The good news is that most of the growth in arrivals to South Korea we see right now is in independent travelers. Independent travelers not only spend more than their tour group counterparts, but also tend to give more of their spending to locally-owned business instead of Chinese-owned hotels, restaurants, and shops.

Medical tourists are largely within the independent traveler category, as such it’s likely that this tourism market will be less affected by Beijing’s ire towards South Korea’s defense strategies or relationship with the United States.

In 2016 South Korea attracted 127,648 Chinese medical tourists. While these tourists represented only 1.8 percent of the total 6.95 million Chinese tourists South Korea attracted that year, their spending is undoubtedly many times greater than the average.

Chinese medical tourism has been dramatically more stable than leisure tourism in the face of Beijing’s “travel ban”

2017 saw a noticeable dip in Chinese medical tourism, with only 99,837 Chinese medical tourists. While a drop of 22 percent is substantial, it shows that the South Korean medical tourism industry can more readily depend on Chinese tourist spending. Overall Chinese arrivals fell by 55 percent for 2017. Chinese medical tourists represented 3.2 percent of the 3.1 million Chinese tourists who traveled to South Korea that year.

If anything, the numbers for 2016 and 2017, in regards to Chinese tourism as a whole and medical tourism specifically, illustrate that expanding efforts to market what South Korea has to offer potential medical tourists is a prudent move for the country as a destination. While having a government health ministry actively market to tourists is a bit unorthodox, this segment will likely remain a stable revenue source.

China has undoubtedly made tremendous gains in terms of economic development and quality of life, and much of that is reflected in the explosive growth of outbound Chinese tourism. The country is also a major leader in all kinds of medical research. However, confidence in the quality of medical care remains low, with frequent high-profile medical scandals. How frequent incidents of poor care are in China is hard to gauge, but ultimately it’s about the perception healthcare-quality. Moreover, many treatments and medications are simply not available in China. Both of these factors give destinations like Hong Kong and South Korea a distinct advantage in terms of Chinese medical tourism that doesn’t seem likely to go away in the near future.


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