For years Taiwan’s citizens and tourists alike have been bemused by the tourism bureau’s motto — “Taiwan, Touch Your Heart.” But with the island’s government pushing to attract a new class of tourists, the phrase may soon start to seem more apt.
Speaking to reporters over the weekend, President Ma Ying-jeou said the government planned to get serious about drawing visitors to the island, not for its night market eats or museums, but to undergo medical procedures like heart surgery or fertility treatment. The announcement represents a potential turning point in Taiwan’s efforts to grab a slice of the US$40 billion medical tourism market.
Around 90,000 people flew to Taiwan last year for medical reasons, which was about only 1% of the island’s medical revenue. But a look at some of the island’s more aggressive neighbors shows there’s plenty of room for growth: Singapore hosted 410,000 “medical travelers” in 2009, while Bumrungrad in Thailand also received 400,000 foreign patients that year, according to Patients Beyond Borders, a Boston-based agency advocating global medical tourism.
Taiwan has been slow to take advantage of growth in medical tourism thanks largely to a combination of poor promotion and planning with fears of inviting contagious diseases from abroad.
In an effort to make Taiwan more competitive in the market, Mr. Ma said, medical tourism would soon be handled by a new committee at the legislature level–much higher than the department of health, which had previously been responsible for the sector but isn’t powerful enough to coordinate international policy-making within the government.
Ma also pledged to increase funding for international marketing, although he didn’t say by how much.
Taiwan’s government has pumped around NT$15 million, or roughly US$493,830, into a government-backed taskforce on medical tourism every year since its inception in 2007. That funding — which is intended to cover all international marketing activities in addition to the taskforce’s daily operating expenses – is piddling compared to Singapore, whose government earmarks around US$100 million for the management and promotion of medical tourism every year.
With restrictions on mainland Chinese tourists fast diminishing, the island could see a surge in medical tourists. Given growing wealth in China—and, since mainland Chinese pay in yuan, the potential for foreign-exchange gains–the windfall for Taiwan could be huge.
“When people talk about Taiwan, they think of its food, but not its healthcare services,” Patients Beyond Borders’ chairman Josef Woodman told China Real Time. “What you need to do is to promote, promote and promote.”
Wu Ming-yeh, a physician who is also secretary of the taskforce on medical tourism, said: “Hopefully, with the increased funding, we can put ads in newspapers overseas, which will certainly help promote us.”
Taiwan has the attributes of a good medical tourism destination — it is safe, located a few hours by plane from other major Asian cities, and boasts a number of western-trained doctors who speak English. In an effort to leverage Taiwan’s easy accessibility by air, the government has announced plans to build a NT$2 billion medical facility near the Taoyuan international airport, although investors have yet to be found for the project.
First, though, the island has a more basic change to make: “They could put up more signs in English inside the hospitals and launch English Web sites detailing their services and pricing.”
By Aries Poon, WSJ