NEW DELHI: The covid-19 pandemic has disrupted businesses across sectors with industries expected to move at a snail’s pace on revival path. But India's medical tourism industry remains one bright spot amid the gloom.
The tourism ministry has said the country will continue to remain the safest, cheapest and one of the most preferred destination for medical tourism during and after the pandemic, even though the sector did bear the brunt of coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown.
Indian medical tourism industry is likely to revive even faster than some developed nations in Europe as well as US on account of comparatively better handling of the situation by India as compared to these nations, said Piyush Tiwari, director (Commercial & Marketing), India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC), under Ministry of Tourism.
“Medical tourists will probably be much more aware of where they go and how ‘medically safe’ the country seems to be to them and medical travel destinations like India that have had a lower number of covid-19 cases and fewer deaths relating to the virus are likely to have a faster recovery," he said.
According to the ministry, the medical tourism space was valued at around $3 billion (US$) in 2015 and was expected to grow to $9 billion in 2020 if not for the covid-19 pandemic. Tiwari said India has been a regional hub for quality healthcare neighboring countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, and West Asia and at times to visiting NRIs from developed countries.
Over the last few years, particularly since 2014, the number of people coming to India for medical treatment has grown annually at about 55%. The government has also promoted India as a preferred medical tourism destination by issuing fast-track medical visas and rapid airport clearances for those visiting as medical tourists.
According to Tiwari, the influx of tourists, including medical tourists is expected to remain slow at least for a good part of 2020. Like all other segments, recovery and revival of medical tourism is also dependent upon availability of medicine as well as vaccine to fight covid-19. But revival will be quick, he added.
“Pandemics have always had significant social and economic effect to humanity over centuries and hospitality, travel and tourism sector is worst hit in terms of severity as well as longer recovery period which will also have an impact on medical tourism to a large extent," said Tiwari. “While a patient needing treatment can’t wait, medical tourism will be affected mostly on account of travel restrictions between various countries as well as likely increase in airfares due to restricted availability of seats to maintain social distancing," he said.
Over the last decade, India has become a sought-after destination for medical value travel and holds the fifth position among 41 major destinations across the globe. Industry experts hold that though the impact on medical tourism was unavoidable due to covid-19, chances of revival seem bright due to its geographical location.
“India has a geographical advantage due to its location at the heart of South Asia and proximity to West Asia; Gulf Countries; Central and South Asian countries. As soon as the international air travel restrictions are lifted, medical value travelers, after following due protocols including RT-PCR testing, will flock to India simply for its value proposition of outstanding value for money and excellent clinical outcomes," said Harish Pillai, Chair-Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry- Medical Value Travel (FICCI-MVT) Committee.
Shanay Shah, member, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Director, Shalby Hospitals, Ahmedabad, said, the way India has handled the pandemic, keeping mortality rates low for a highly communicable disease like covid-19, despite the population density, has proven India's medical ingenuity once again.
Industry experts also said alternative medicines and telemedicine facilities will add value to the sector. “There is also a visible opportunity for the Indian healthcare industry in context to medical tourism. Post covid-19 Indian wellness system, Yoga and Naturopathy are likely to gain more popularity world over," said Tiwari.