The head of Dubai Health Authority (DHA) believes the number of medical tourists receiving treatment in the emirate will reach millions annually by the end of the decade, potentially pumping billions of dollars into the economy.
Dubai is aiming to become a major international medical tourism hub as it rapidly expands its healthcare sector and loosens visa requirements for patients.
In an exclusive interview with Arabian Business, DHA director general Engineer Essa Al Maidoor said Dubai had all the right elements to attract foreign patients, including its own airline, an airport and a plethora of hotels, while it was ploughing millions of dollars into improving and expanding health services.
“So when it comes to medical, especially people from the MENA area, Africa and maybe the middle of Asia, why not [come to Dubai]?” Al Maidoor said.
With the total number of tourists in Dubai growing by 2m to 9.5m between 2010 and 2012, Al Maidoor believes he can attract millions of medical tourists within five to ten years.
“[The increased number of tourists] shows the growth in that sector,” he said. “Similarly, the health sector will grow as the number of people attracted [to Dubai] grows. “As much as the people need, we can provide.
“The main challenge is to maintain it with quality – that’s what I’m aiming to have in Dubai. As it’s forming as a business hub we hope it will form as a private health [care] hub for the region.”
The medical tourism market already generates more than US$1.6bn each year, according to Euromonitor International, with much of that in Dubai.
The Dubai Health Authority estimates the number of medical tourists in Dubai is increasing 10-15 percent each year, while about 15 percent of patients in Dubai Healthcare City already are medical tourists.
The UAE also recently announced a new three-month medical tourist visa, which can be extended twice, up to nine consecutive months, in a bid to attract foreign patients.
It also is now granting short-stay visas for specialist doctors needed to work in operating theatres for as little as one day.
Additionally, thousands of medical professionals are travelling to Dubai for various healthcare conferences hosted in the emirate.
More than 100,000 people are estimated to have attended Arab Health expo earlier this month, while 90,000 nights worth of accommodation were booked out for a three-day dental conference also in February.
However, Deloitte’s director of healthcare consulting, Parham Gohari, said Dubai had “a long way to go” before it would be an attractive medical destination.
Bahrain and Kuwait also were competing for medical tourists in the region and while Dubai had better infrastructure and a larger pool of existing tourists, there was some distrust in the emirate’s healthcare system, Gohari said.
“Dubai has the potential but I do feel they have a long way to go,” he told Arabian Business.