Taiwan creates new niche market through medical tourism

Taipei, Feb. 12 (CNA) Besides the traditional sightseeing tour to Taiwan that takes visitors to the Sun Moon Lake and the mountainous region of Alishan, Taiwan is also drawing tourists that are seeking to become healthier and more physically attractive. In the eastern county of Hualien, traditionally known better for its coastal scenery than medical services, 67 local medical institutions and travel operators recently joined hands to start offering high-end medical packages aimed at luring Chinese tourists. Priced at NT$500,000 (US$17,249), a seven-day package features a combination of Western-style physical checkups and clinical cosmetology, as well as Chinese preventive medicine. A 14-day package features an even higher-end health promotion and anti-aging treatment for double the price, according to a county international medical tourism association established by the local government. Buddhist Tzu Chi General Hospital in Hualien also offers interesting services in the field of medical tourism. The hospital made a name for itself by making people's legs slimmer through a calf muscle-trimming procedure, which has been drawing tourists from as far as Brazil. Since 2001, the hospital has conducted procedures on 500 pairs of legs. Twenty percent of medical tourists coming to the Hualien hospital were from China, Hong Kong, Macau, the United States, Canada and Japan. What is happening in Hualien is part of a larger picture in Taiwan, where policymakers are attaching more importance to medical tourism as a new niche market and a way to boost the country's economy. According to the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA), Taiwan's top trade promoter, Taiwan recorded the arrival of 81,462 medical tourists as of the end of the third quarter of 2012, more than double the 39,428 visitors flocking to the country in 2011. Among those treated in 2012, 60 percent came to Taiwan to get treatment for their illnesses, 27 percent for health check-ups, while 13 percent came for cosmetic surgery, according to the TAITRA. Last December, Minister without Portfolio Kuang Chung-ming proposed setting up a "service industry experimental zone" near the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, the country's main international gateway that would offer "derivative services from tourism." The "derivative services" include sectors spanning travel, shopping, clinical cosmetology and financial services, which will cater to the needs of international visitors. Kuang said the idea of the zone was part of the efforts aimed at boosting Taiwan's employment by cultivating the service industry, with especially high-paying service jobs. The Cabinet-level Council for Economic Planning and Development also floated the idea of "free economic demonstration zones" that will foster the development of Taiwan into regional hubs for providing critical medical care and medical tourism, industrial innovation, international logistics, global talent training and agricultural product sales. Meanwhile, Taiwan, in particular has been striving to attract tourists from China, given the two countries' linguistic and cultural similarities. According to the TAITRA, three million people a year in China were opting for plastic surgery. The cosmetic surgery market in China had grown by 10 percent annually, which is the highest in Asia and had surpassed the global average of 6 percent, the pointed out. Taiwan also launched a 15-day medical tourism visa in January last year to cater to Chinese tourists. In August 2012, it also promoted an e-visa service that will help make things easier for Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan for physical checkups, cosmetic surgery or anti-aging treatments. Taiwan drew a total of 50,376 medical tourists from China in 2012. (By Andrew Liu, Lin Hui-chun, Lin Meng-ju, Cheng Chung-sheng, Liu Chien-pang, Lung Jui-yun, Johnson Sun and Scully Hsiao)