[Poolside cocktails . . . a good book . . . a suntan . . . and a few hours under a surgeon's knife. John Krich reports on Asia's medical-tourism boom.]
Penang -- AFTER THEIR WEDDING and honeymoon in the Caribbean just over a month ago, Kelly Turner and Paul Mitchell hopped on a business-class flight and headed to Malaysia.
The English couple's visit to Asia wasn't an extension of their honeymoon. Instead, the newlyweds arrived in Kuala Lumpur for an aesthetic overhaul -- a breast enlargement and dental work for 27-year-old Ms. Turner, and teeth whitening for 30-year-old Mr. Mitchell -- followed by a jaunt to the sleepy island of Penang for some post-surgical sun. Back in the United Kingdom, this list of procedures would have cost Close to $18,000. But the couple's unusual trip to Malaysia, arranged by an online company specializing in medical travel packages, cost about half that amount.
"We get the surgery, plenty of dentistry and then a proper holiday," Says Mr. Mitchell, the head of a legal billing service in Manchester in the North of England. "With the long waits for operations back home, if people's minds could be triggered to think `Malaysia,' there'd be an invasion."
That is exactly what Malaysian government authorities and hospital administrators want to hear. The country is just one in Asia to be capitalizing on the booming medical tourism industry. The number of foreign travelers heading to Malaysia for medical treatments, for instance, has more than doubled in the past three years -- to 102,000 visitors from 44,000.
Now, a new face of medical tourism is emerging. The demand from foreigners for cosmetic or elective surgery bundled in with a pampering holiday has spawned a small but growing industry of entrepreneurial tour operators in Asia, who are channeling tourists to both luxury city hotels and exotic resort areas such as the island of Penang, for sun -- and surgery.
"After industrial outsourcing, medical tourism can be the second-largest revenue producer in Asia," says Suresh Ponnudurai, whose company Tropical Flow is creating the prototype for the first coordinated Malaysian medical tourism Web-site portal.
Thailand has long recognized the value of the medical dollar. Its unabashed attempt to cast itself as a medical hub, supported by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, has paid off to the tune of about $6 billion --it's estimated that about one million medical tourists visited the country last year, up from about 630,000 in 2002. Bangkok's famed high-tech Bumrungrad Hospital hosts 300,000 foreign patients annually, who flock there for everything from face lifts to heart surgery. The country's idyllic island resort of Phuket has become a hub for sex-change operations.