In the wake of the tsunami, Thailand is doing everything it can to attract European tourists again, sometimes luring them with unusual offerings such as face lifts, cancer treatments and kidney operations.
Luring tourists back, in many ways
Thailand, the so-called Land of Smiles, is literally becoming just that as dentists and other medical specialists are becoming an attraction along with its famous beaches for a growing number of tourists, particularly from Germany, seeking cheaper medical care.
German national Petra Reichelt works at Bangkok Hospital, Southeast Asia's largest private hospital group and has lived in Thailand for years. In her work, it is not unusual for her to encounter her compatriots -- 500,000 to 600,000 German tourists visit the country annually and some of them have accidents or fall ill.
But Petra Reichelt says a growing new clientele is beginning to combine health-care needs with holiday pleasures.
"Thailand is a beautiful destination and it has excellent health care services and the prices are -- compared to Germany -- very, very affordable," she said. "So why not take a vacation for the same money, have your teeth done, have a laser done or whatever you need. And just take your whole family, make a vacation of that and it won't cost you more than in Germany."
A hub for medical care
Initially, the International Hospital in Thailand's capital was built with the purpose of creating a comfortable ambience for customers from different cultures. But these days, with a network of 12 network hospitals and more than 5,000 in-patient beds throughout Thailand, Bangkok Hospital now sees itself as "the world's premier medical hub" for foreign tourists.
The aftermath of a disaster
Attracting patients to paradise is the name of the game these days. And due to Germany's current reform of the state health-system, Germans are increasingly confronted with high costs for medical treatment at home. The great uncertainty about further cuts has led to an unprecedented boom in health tourism as patients seek deals on the Internet.
And they are there to be had. Cosmetic breast enlargement in Germany costs an average of 5,000 euros. Bangkok offers the same operation for 4,535 euros - but that's including a return flight and one week worth of hotel accommodation in a luxury 5-star hotel.
"I got dental implants in Bangkok last summer," said one satisfied customer. "I had a face lift in Cape Town in the winter. And I saved a lot of money. It was fun and I feel fine and I had a holiday."
Beaches and medical treatment
Health- and wellness-travel is the booming sector in tourism. Already, 20 percent of all cosmetic surgery is booked along with a stylish holiday. And South East Asia is well positioned in the expanding market. From robotic cardiac surgery to cancer care, from gastro-intestinal surgery or HIV treatment, hospitals in India, Korea, Singapore and Thailand often offer their medical services at a quarter of German prices. And so far, no complaints have been registered in Germany, according to Petra Reichelt.
"Don't fear, the hospitals are great," she said. "The service is better. The facilities are great, the technology is highly advanced."
As good as in the US or Germany, hospital officials say
Indeed, medical care, technology and hygiene largely are on a level with US hospitals. While ordinary patients share double or triple rooms in German hospitals, South East Asian private institutions offer only luxury single rooms. In many parts of South East Asia, medicine provides good financial opportunities. Investments in modern technology and luxury institutions are paying off, said Bangkok Hospital's marketing manager Ralf Krewer. Almost all of the 500 doctors working at South East Asia's largest private hospital group are Thai.
"In the past, the majority of Thai doctors went to the US, Germany, Australia or Japan to practice and further their academic education," he said. "But the heavy investment on the Thai side led to many of those top doctors coming back."
Thai doctors tough competition
Thai doctors are tough competition for their German colleagues who are beginning to feel the pinch. German doctors and dentists are highly sceptical about growing overseas health tourism. They question the monitoring of medical standards. They ask whether sophisticated treatments actually delivered, whether quality materials are used in complicated dental surgery and so on.
Also, doctors overseas are not able to deal with long-term patient preparation before operations and prophylactic care, specialists argue. Botched surgery is hard to rectify. And who will be responsible for the often sensitive rehabilitation process, they wonder.
The mutual trust between a patient and a doctor plays a vital role in the recovery process, German doctors say. Health tourism, they argue, cannot provide that atmosphere of trust.
Petra Reichelt dismisses such criticism and says that her hospital has a consistent focus on the quality of service provided and patient satisfaction. "I think a lot of people were very surprised to learn how advanced and how great a standard we offer," she said.