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New Delhi: India is losing its sheen as a destination for medical tourism as factors such as costly hotel rooms are prompting patients to turn to countries such as China and Thailand.

A considerable number of medical tourists from countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan used to avail facilities in India but the flow has declined, according to the latest data available with the tourism ministry.

Medical tourists from Afghanistan fell from 61,231 in 2016 to 55,681 in 2017. Similarly, medical tourists from Uzbekistan declined from 9,564 in 2016 to 8,309 last year. A total of 5,530 and 7,496 medical tourists travelled from Nigeria and Kenya respectively in 2017, lower than 2016’s 9,277 and 8,701 respectively.

The numbers from neighbouring Pakistan also came down from 3,955 in 2016 to 1,785 last year.

“One of the major reasons for the decline in medical tourists is the increase in goods and services tax (GST) on hotels in India, which is now around 28%. Earlier, the tax rate used to hover at 18-19%. In other countries, this percentage is far less. Now, this perception has set in that India has become costlier for medical treatment," said Satyajeet Rajan, director general, tourism, at the ministry.

In India, hotel rooms costing 7,500 and more per night attract a GST of 28% while those costing 2,500-7,500 attract 18% GST.

Tourism ministry officials said most medical tourists prefer luxury hotels which attract the higher GST slab.

“Even Airbnb stays have also become costly in India. Several patients going by the cost incurred on overall medical treatment in India are looking for alternatives; diverting from India, they are choosing China and Thailand for as medical destinations," said Rajan.

India however continues to receive a steady flow of medical tourists from Bangladesh due to its proximity to West Bengal, he said, adding the ministry is hopeful of a rebound in medical tourists from Africa.

“We are engaged in several exhibitions across the world and other initiatives to promote medical tourism in India," said Rajan.

While the government considers medical tourism is booming, health experts believe the industry is evolving and requires active support and participation from all stakeholders.

“Streamlining visa norms is an area which needs immediate attention from the Indian government," said Ramneek Mahajan, director, orthopaedics and joint replacement at Max Hospital, Saket, New Delhi.

“The waiting period of getting medical visa is long due to additional procedures involved, and the physical presence of patients is required at embassies. Besides, the medical tourism industry in India is also facing some other bottlenecks. One such is medical insurance. Some overseas companies refuse reimbursement."

The government is supporting the efforts to promote medical tourism by extending the visa on arrival status scheme to 150 countries.

“However, the fact is that the healthcare sector in India currently competes with a number of healthcare providers in Asia who enjoy preferential tax regimes and various concessions announced by their respective governments," said Anjan Bose, secretary general, NATHEALTH, an inclusive institution representing small and medium hospitals.

Pressure on healthcare systems is also increasing, including at private hospitals, as growing affluence has led to a steady rise in domestic demand for good quality healthcare. “Given the vast demand existing within the domestic economy, the health infrastructure is often seen to be inadequate," said Arup Mitra, professor at National Institute of Labour Economics Research and Development and Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi.

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