China’s Travel Agents Cater to Demand for Medical Tourism

Pudong airport, China

Photograph by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Pudong airport, China

Chinese tourists made 97 million foreign trips in 2013, up almost 20 percent from a year earlier. Their reasons for traveling are varied. Some want to experience new cultures; others want to stock up on designer handbags and shoes that are pricier at home under China’s import tariffs on luxury goods. Another lure for overseas travel: better or more affordable medical care.

Top destinations include Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan, while China’s wealthy elite prefer Switzerland and the U.S. for medical tourism, according to a report from Hurun, a research firm tracking the spending habits of China’s rich.

Some enterprising Chinese travel agencies are taking advantage of the trend. The China Jiangsu Network reported that Yangzhou Travel is now offering medical tourism packages to Japan that include five-star hotels, fine cuisine, and airfare. A staffer told the newswire that cancer-screening trips to Japan are popular, while genetics-testing trips to Canada are also in high demand.

A general manager at Hubei Spring International Travel Service told Hubei Daily that he now receives frequent inquiries about medical tourism to South Korea, which is known as a destination for plastic surgery. In 2012 more than 32,000 mainland Chinese visited Korea for cosmetic procedures, according to data from the Korea Health Industry Development Institute.

On a more somber note: China’s drug authorities have still not granted approval for human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccines to be sold and distributed on the mainland, despite the proven link between HPV and cervical cancer, which kills an estimated 30,000 women yearly in China. The vaccines, however, are available in Hong Kong, luring women like Ms. Chin, who told Hubei Daily that she is planning to travel with her 11-year-old daughter to Hong Kong this summer so they can both receive vaccinations.

Larson is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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