Medical tourism in the Americas: Spotlighting consumer interest during recessionary times

It is quite hard nowadays to talk about wellbeing in most parts of the world, for that is what the recession has taken away from millions: their welfare, health and other reasons to be happy.

However, in the Americas, the crisis that began with the credit crunch in the United States has had a positive effect on another trend within the wellness megatrend: medical tourism.

Why is this happening? Firstly, because the health centres in the south of the continent – according to consumers – are very cheap. Secondly, because the recession has added weight to the main argument people use when they go to a spa: stress.

And last but certainly not least, because the latest trends linked to wellbeing have to do with the spiritual vibe and even ancestral cultures, competitive advantages that many tourist destinations are now enjoying.

Key trends

  • Medical and surgical tourism in recessionary times boosted by convenient prices;
  • Stress alleviation: in demand during the downturn.

Commercial opportunities

  • Watch your price. The prices for basic medical treatments and particular therapies are very high in the United States and Canada compared to the rest of the continent. It may be necessary to consider some modifications and incentives to avoid losing traditional clients;
  • Travelling is healthy. Medical tourism is a positive trend, which can be used by companies as a reward to their customers or in mileage programmes to attract new audiences (giving consumers the possibility to redeem miles for medical tourism packages);
  • Tradition resurrected. Traditional therapies and ancestral cultures have become trendy alongside other trends that turn to nature and organic products. What was old could become classic again.

Background

Medical tourism was unthought-of up until some decades ago: travelling was expensive and the health market was limited to curing diseases, not preventing them. As time went by, in developed countries like the USA, what was eccentric ended up becoming a trend, framed inside one of the megatrends of the moment: wellbeing.

To explain this, one has to turn to health as one of the reasons, but it mostly has to do with the satisfaction the client seeks for themselves and their lives. Being well includes much more than just health.

The impact this has had on markets is resounding, both in the world of services (spas, travel and holidays, plastic surgery and the exercise industry) and on products (healthy eating, diet and organic food). In the Americas – and probably all over the world – the trend began in the USA, and ended up expanding all over the region, first in Argentina, Canada and the urban areas of Brazil.

The recession has found – and even encouraged – the medical tourism trend as one of the main allies of wellbeing in the Americas. Hundreds of thousands travel from the USA or Canada to Latin America every year searching for more affordable plastic surgery. But the crisis has also highlighted another need: mental health.

Spiritual destinations and trends linked to ancestral cultures are some of the features starring in medical tourism in times of crisis. Many countries and cities, as well as brands and companies, already take this into account when creating their strategies.

Medical and surgical tourism in recessionary times boosted by convenient prices

It is possible to find manifestations of medical tourism in almost every country in the Americas, although the trend appears in a different way in each one of them, especially in these times of recession. Firstly, some countries have become a destination for medical tourism, encouraged by the government and good prices.

Even though the people willing to pay for these services do not live there, it is in countries like Mexico, Colombia, Cuba, Argentina and Venezuela where these trends and habits are mostly advertised, for they are trying to lure travellers.

In the Federal District of Mexico, the capital, for instance, local authorities launched the so-called Consulting Board for Health Tourism last November, which aims to attract 20% of the world’s medical tourism. The city’s Mayer, Marcelo Ebrar, pointed out that the global medical tourism market reaches US$60 billion and it is expected to rise to US$100 billion by the end of this year.

The El Financiero newspaper stressed that the motivation is to improve the income of the city during the recession, for “a tourist that comes to the city stays for two nights and spends 400 dollars, while a medical tourist stays for seven nights and spends 13 thousand dollars.”

Mexico does not specialise in sophistication; it does provide low prices: a dental consultation, getting an appointment with a cardiologist or an MRI is up to 40% cheaper than in the USA, which is the main market Mexico aims at. According to Mexican authorities, 1.5 million Americans sought medical consultations outside the country in 2008, a number that may reach six million during 2010.

Other countries like Costa Rica – where tourism is the key industry – want to “redeem” the recessionary period with more medical tourists too. The Board for the International Promotion of Costa Rican Medicine (Consejo para la Promoción Internacional de la Medicina de Costa Rica – Promed) creates tourist promotions that offer excellent quality at low prices for consumers from developed economies.

During 2009 it reached out to people searching for basic treatments like dental care and diagnosis, following the idea that during a slump, many will want to have vacations and save on health expenses at the same time. This year, according to news agency EFE, 35% of the treatments were dental treatments, whilst 15% were for plastic surgery.

With more tourists, the industry of certification is at its peak. Each country tries to shine in specific areas of medical expertise. In Colombia, for example, the government promotes cardiovascular treatments: there, near 40% of the 44 foreigners that visited the country during 2008 for medical reasons went in search of cures for heart conditions.

In traditional scientific medicine, Cuba excels, for it has become the destination of many Latin Americans seeking rest and excellent treatments. The USA has helped the island during these complicated times by allowing citizens who have relatives in the country to travel there. A cable of the news agency ANSA assures that “Americans would fill the Cuban hospitals if Washington ended the prohibitions on citizens travelling to Cuba” and affirms that many Americans travel anyway, due to the excellent quality and extremely cheap prices, which are up to 50% lower.

The cost of various medical surgeries in Latin America and the USA: 2009
Price in US$ (‘000)

Source: Medical Tourism AssociationNote: Data for Latin America shows the average cost of specific surgeries in Mexico, Costa Rica and Colombia.

Spiritual destinations reappear as allies of wellbeing

Alongside the wellbeing concept, new destinations and trends for medical tourists have appeared in the last few years that have almost no relation to traditional medicine. They are spiritual destinations, which offer to improve wellbeing through the harmony of the soul. This development is about natural treatments in which food and the rest of the products used are either natural or organic, and that have been nourished at a national and regional level.

In North America, the trend follows the boom of some Asian habits, especially yoga and even Buddhism, which appeared in Hollywood largely though celebrity ambassadors such as Richard Gere. But countries like Mexico, Peru and Argentina have seen the rebirth of these therapies with the ancestral rites that came from, for example, the Mayas.

In Tanti, a small town in the hills of the Province of Córdoba, in Argentina, a meditation centre of the “World Peace Movement of the 13 moons” invites passing tourists to receive the Mayan spirit. Here permaculture is practised, as well as yoga, Natural Mind meditation, organic gardening, vegetarian food and a thorough study of the Mayan Calendar are also on the menu.

Our era of terrorism, global warming, natural disasters and technological frenzy that pushes human relationships to a virtual existence all help places such as these thrive, an article in the Argentinean magazine Cinco W explains.

This same concept has taken thousands to destinations like Peru and Mexico, where ancestral cultures are related to other new trends such as eco-tourism and social tourism (where one volunteers to work in poor communities).

The subject matter is at the top of the tourists´ list in websites and blogs, like yourtravelchoice.org, where the city of Cusco, Peru, is the gateway to the world-renowned ruins of Machu Picchu, which are sacred. The country is one of the most popular ones in the travel green guide that the association publishes, especially because of its “sacred” associations.

The online SpaFinder wellness resource highlights that the spa industry “provides an extraordinary, shining example of globalization essentially in reverse: the massive exportation (and promotion) of indigenous therapies and health traditions across the world.”

The curious aspect of this is that while tourist travel with “spiritual” aspirations is sought by those who crave mental stability, plastic surgery is also one of the main reasons people have for travelling. It seems beauty and vanity still remain a growing trend. The crisis has put together tourism and cosmetic surgery, which is why thousands travel to Mexico or Argentina to get a boob job or other popular procedure.

According to information provided by the International Society of Plastic Surgery, Argentina comes in fifth in the list of countries where these types of interventions are practised. For its low cost, the country is considered the Mecca of “aesthetic tourism”: surgeries increased by 230% in the past seven years.

And the new trend? For the Clarín newspaper, from Buenos Aires, these are the “combined surgeries”: tourists will even get three procedures in one intervention; for they cost 30% less than if they were done separately. The time they take is the same for there are surgeons working at the same time. And they are offered on the Internet and in tourism magazines.

Hotel/resort spas in the USA: 2004-2009
Number of sites/outlets

Source: Euromonitor from trade sources and national statistics.

Stress alleviation: in demand during the downturn

The recession has also increased a familiar feeling known to all: stress. And a part of the tourism industry is reaping the benefits of this, with more and more hotels featuring spas and beauty centres. “Stress affects more than just our lives at work and at home, it affects our health. So take time to de-stress, by getting a massage, it could end up saving your health down the road”, said the president of ISPA, a global entity of the spa industry.

This comment followed on the heels of the publication of the results of a survey according to which “stress relief was the primary reason why Americans visited spas”, as in the rest of the world.

According to Euromonitor International, in 2009, there were 1,786 hotel/resort spas in the USA, which means 70% more than in 2004, when there was only 1,048. The International Spa Association (ISPA) also points to some trends that are changing in the USA.

For example, the appearance, a few years ago, of the first “airport spa”, that illustrates a crossover between convenience and wellness for time-famined workers in transit. The crisis has also boosted the creation of spas in rural areas, away from the city.

In the Hispanic world, wellbeing has appeared later than in the USA and Canada, although it is taken more and more into consideration now. The digital Argentinean magazine expo-natural.com.ar, explains that “it is more than a trend, it is a need” and assures that “in the past years, a natural trend as a means to find harmony between body and soul has reappeared.

People are aware that these habits allow prevention, recovery and the maintenance of a healthy lifestyle”.

Outlook

Medical tourism is soaring in the Americas due to the low prices and excellent quality Latin American destinations offer, in comparison to more developed countries, as well as the need to end the stress caused by the recession.

However, there is proof that the trend will continue once the crisis ends, because of the expansion it is witnessing and also as the new wellness needs of the consumer become ever more complex and demanding.

The medical tourism already includes at least five trends that relate to different types of consumers: the spas and beauty centres; plastic surgery; spiritual and meditation destinations and more traditional treatments based on scientific medicine. The fifth group would be “other therapies”, which take in a range of trends. What are these trends? In Argentina, for instance, the public health system offers zoo therapy (therapy with pets). In Peru, as in other countries, therapy with thermal water has appeared.

In Brazil, the concept of the “urban spa” is more and more used, anti-stress centres that use many techniques at the same time. Also in Argentina, the country that has the most psychologists per person, there exist “life quality evaluators”, and in Mexico, hundreds go to special farms to fight obesity. All are part of the long tail of medical tourism that becomes longer with each passing year.