Malaysia preparing comeback for medical tourism, says report

Malaysia hopes to create a bubble for medical travellers to kick-start the tourism industry. (Reuters pic)

PETALING JAYA: Malaysia is preparing to make a comeback as the world’s top spot for medical tourism, Singapore’s The Straits Times (ST) reported.

It said the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC), which governs medical tourism, is proposing to allow patients from specified nations to arrive on commercial flights and enter through green zones, subject to clearance from their own governments.

In a report, ST quoted MHTC’s chief executive officer, Sherene Azli, as saying that six countries – Brunei, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand – have been identified for such green zone entry.

If approved by the government, it said, this would create a small travel bubble that could act as a precursor to a general tourism travel bubble for Malaysia, looking to its healthcare sector to revive the tourism industry.

ST said Malaysia positioned itself as a medical tourism destination about 10 years ago when it launched MHTC under the health ministry, and has grown at a rate of about 15% annually since then.

Before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, medical tourist arrivals were almost three times that of its Southeast Asian neighbours.

In the last two years, it had the highest volume of medical tourist arrivals in the world – 900,000 in 2018 and 1.3 million in 2019 – and was the third-largest gross domestic product contributor. Thailand ranked second.

Healthcare travel revenue – from hospital receipts alone – more than tripled in a decade, hitting RM1.7 billion last year, and contributing RM8 billion to the economy.

The report said the vast majority of the patients seeking treatment were from the region, mostly suffering from cancer or cardiovascular diseases.

For 2020, it said, MHTC is aiming for RM500 million in hospital receipts and RM2 billion in contributions to the economy.

However, the progressive opening up of the medical tourism industry has caused some concern in states like Penang, ST said, noting that it had temporarily halted the entry of such visitors in August.

The decision, prompted by new Covid-19 cases in the state after almost three months of not having even a single case, coincided with the arrival of three medical tourists from Indonesia, where most of the state’s medical tourists are from.

Sherene, however, is confident these tourists pose the lowest risk, given the strict SOP of the MHTC.

“With the SOP we have put in place, they are the lowest risk (in terms of breaking quarantine orders),” she said, pointing out that medical tourists will be brought directly to their hospitals where they will undergo quarantine with their treatment.

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