Complementary & Alternative Medicine

Wellness Tourism Travel Agents Get On-Board for the Ride

Complementary & Alternative Medicine

With all the options available to book a flight – from laptop computers to smart phone applications – internet savvy bargain shoppers may view the notion of using travel agents as old-fashioned as a doctor who makes house calls.

Well, these days, news of the demise of the travel agent is quite premature. Instead, travel agents are discovering new ways to reinvent their businesses through niche-industry marketing and value-added product design.

In some respects, travel agents, doctors and spas have actually joined forces at the hip to offer health and wellness seekers quality healthcare services overseas that, in all likelihood, will be less expensive than similar treatments and therapies available from the neighborhood physician down the road. Due in part to an elevated understanding of the value of prevention, health checks, dental procedures and diagnostic testing abroad brings new meaning to being “fit for travel.”

Just when some travel agents were suggested to go by way of the dinosaur, many are now redefining their businesses into a profitable cottage industry for themselves, spas, health and wellness providers alike. That burgeoning enterprise includes wellness and medical tourism.

‘Fit for Travel’

Travel experts who arrange wellness tourism opportunities are in many ways like traditional agents, except that the deliverables involve a few new wrinkles and profits are far from cosmetic.

Think of the travel agent whose attention to detail stopped short of pulling down the sheets for newlyweds on their dream honeymoon. Now consider the travel professional asked to go beyond that extra yard and book a wellness experience that might include a treatment that meets a client’s physical and

Travel experts who arrange wellness tourism opportunities are in many ways like traditional agents, except that the deliverables involve a few new wrinkles and profits are far from cosmetic.

emotional needs, transfer of health records, arrangement of hotel and flight accommodations, and an appearance at the airport when the patient arrives. That’s what a travel agent versed in wellness tourism can and should be willing to do to remain competitive in a medical tourism industry that is expected to become even more ambitious and lucrative in the years ahead.

Sizeable, Sustainable Rewards

If all this sounds like a lot for a travel agent to comprehend, it is. But, the rewards for those involved with medical and wellness tourism are potentially sizeable and sustainable. Healthcare providers know this and have slowly come around to realize that the combination of travel and wellness is an altogether different animal, fed by an aging world population; the failure of conventional medical systems to address cost-effective, prevention-focused alternatives to existing Western models; and the increased globalization of healthcare.1

That’s why at events around the world, health-focused companies are aggressively identifying and courting travel agents to form partnerships that streamline wellness and medical tourism processes to the benefit of both patients and their thriving businesses.

Bora Bora to Reykjavik

Wellness travel is one of the fastest growing trends in medical tourism today, and worth more than US $106 billion, according to a recent estimate by the SRI Group.2 The study reports there are 289 million active wellness consumers in the top 30 industrialized nations, prompting and enabling agents to pick and choose from an assortment of spa treatments and adventure activities to include for their clients in vacation packages around the world.3

Trip options do not prejudice by generation, either, but rather diversify features to encompass age-specific groups, and children as well. Travel agents are finding themselves catering to the needs of young and old, many of whom are focused on maintaining or restoring their youthful appearances through invigorating treatments – from cosmetic surgery to salt glows – at resort-like getaways from Iceland to Singapore.

Yoga Goes Mainstream

In this respect, travel agents might be more apt to connect an older client with a plan that incorporates rehabilitation treatments and how to prevent diseases, such as osteoporosis, compared to a younger audience who might be more suited to an approach that focuses on maintaining their fresh and natural look.

Both demographics represent a growing number of people intent on developing better fitness habits and lifestyle-changing behaviors to live longer, happier and more productive lives. Wellness tourism allows these seekers opportunities not available and often not affordable at home in addition to enhancing the value of well-needed vacation time.

No matter the guise, wellness tourism does not have to be an exotic concept in itself. Spas and their treatments have, in truth, gone mainstream, with travel agents reporting heavy interest among clients seeking specific programs like stress reduction, fitness, and weight loss.

Modern spas are now shifting toward integrating fitness, complementary and alternative medicines, preventative health, advanced beauty and anti-aging, and weight loss and nutrition with ancient remedies to attract new followers, who expect to receive dedicated support and guidance from the best yoga instructors, nutritionists, doctors, and personal trainers the world has to offer.

Healthy, Productive Employees

This popular trend has the backing of many self-funded employer insurance packages which put a premium on making healthy workers become more productive employees. Both the health-obsessed Baby Boomer generation and the retiredcrowd as well should continue to fuel this engine and influence where people go and what people do during their precious periods away from work now and into the next decade at a clip expected to cross the $2 trillion mark.4

Corporate wellness programs offered through employers also envision a healthier option for executives to prevent burnout and to take healthier options in their selection of business trip hotels.

All this puts an added emphasis on travel agents to remain up-to-date and understand the tenets of wellness when asked to design creative and attractive offerings that help maintain or enhance the personal health or emotional states of the clients and the corporations they serve.

As more clients begin to grasp the idea of wellness and the need and desire to feel better, more relaxed and connected to their own community, travel agents will have no choice, but to focus more on prevention, maintenance, interventions and nutrition as an ongoing foundation for their health and fitness consultations.

In this respect, travel agents will be held to know that a pillow menu can be just as important to the vacation experience as passports or pedicures are to clients who opt to dip toes in another country’s culture on a holistic level. These simple nuances may make the difference in increased revenues, developing new partnerships and expanding market shares.

With this in mind, educational programs are sprouting up in convenient and supportive locations to encourage travel agents who are passionate in professional development and interested in current information about medical tourism, corporate wellness and health destinations to learn about successful case studies, industry best-practices and product and service innovations.

Stand Out in a Crowd

The importance of travel agents is hard to ignore at a conference full of healthcare professionals when – in the United States alone – medical costs continue to rise and the number of available doctors keep falling. So, it’s not surprising that many Americans, who love to travel in the first place, don’t think twice when presented with the opportunity to combine a short vacation with not only wellness tourism and dental vacations, but a more significant medical procedure abroad – when they need the treatment and where they want it.

Coupled with the fact that more Americans are living longer – some 49 million completely without or lacking adequate employer-sponsored medical programs5 — patients are increasingly seeking out hospitals and medical centers in Asia and Latin America as prime destinations for procedures ranging from dental surgery and major organ transplants to hip and knee replacements.

Price Is Right

Some Americans also include stops each year in countries like India, Malaysia, Thailand, Costa Rica, and the Philippines, among others not just because the care is cheap, but the quality is also high and timely.6 According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, costs for treatment abroad can be as little as one-half to one-fifth of the going rate in the United States.

If that’s hard to imagine, the center cites, as an example, New Delhi’s Apollo Hospital, which charges $4,000 for certain cardiac procedures, compared to the average $30,000 price tag in the United States.7 The prices, however like all healthcare costs, continue to rise even if not as exponentially as found in the United States.

Even though the bottom line has been drawn deep in the sand as an overwhelming factor, it is not the only reason Americans are packing their bags for healthcare overseas. The Joint Commission International, the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for healthcare procedures worldwide, has accredited more than 170 hospitals outside the United States.8

Other accreditation systems such as Accreditation Canada expanded beyond national borders to provide its accreditation standards across the globe with the ultimate goal to provide transparency in patient safety and quality of accredited facilities.

The cross-border nature of medical professionals is on the rise and allowing patients to find nurses from the Philippines in Mexican hospitals and South Korean surgeons just about anywhere in the world. It stands to reason then that there’s a good chance that the 62-year-old on Social Security who flies to India for bypass surgery will probably be treated by a physician educated in the United States or Europe.

On the other hand, not all medical tourism procedures are as complex. That same 62-year-old may be instead thinking about wellness tourism as a healthy and creative way to spend time off from the daily grind at work.

Bright Forecast

Healthcare reform, rising medical costs and economic factors affecting competing travel destinations and providers make the climate ripe for proactive travel agents who have the foresight and intuition to predict tourism trends.

As borders to healthcare continue to be redistributed, choosing the right flight plan to minimize connections for a medical and wellness tourist returning from treatment or therapy abroad may be as crucial as forecasting cloud patterns.

Travel agents then become even more imperative for connecting the dots for clients, who themselves are challenged enough to become more familiar with expanding medical and wellness tourism destinations and practices.

A basic understanding of medical and wellness procedures a patient may be interested in, their physical condition, finances, previous international travel experience and personal preferences are just some of the prerequisites that travel agents will need to equip themselves with in order to stay afoot with an evolving learning curve for the sake of keeping their businesses relevant and thriving.

Many Hats to Wear

Wearing multiple hats is nothing new for an experienced and versatile travel agent. Making a surgical cap or unitard fit might just be a little bit more challenging. The good news is that medical tourism associations and supportive healthcare governing bodies, through education by way of tailored certification programs and networking and partnership opportunities linked to professional conferences and summits, are making one size fit all.

Some Americans also include stops each year in countries like India, Malaysia, Thailand, Costa Rica, and the Philippines, among others not just because the care is cheap, but the quality is also high and timely.
Learn about how you can become a Certified Medical Tourism Professional→