EghtesadOnline: A record high of 600,000 health tourists visited Iran during the first four months of the current Iranian year (March 21-July 21), equaling the total number of health tourists who paid a visit to the country in the last fiscal year (March 2018-19), according to the deputy head of Iran Health Tourism Promotion Association of Iran.
“Last year, a total of $1.2 billion in revenues were generated through health tourism. The figure has increased by 20-30% during the first four months of this year,” Mohammad Panahi was also quoted as saying by Donya-e-Eqtesad.
“The main reason for the increase is that the depreciation of Iranian rial against foreign currencies has made travelling to Iran much cheaper,” he added, noting that the expertise of Iranian physicians has also made the country’s medical services market appealing for foreigners.
Tourists this year, according to Panahi, have mainly come from Iraq, Azerbaijan, littoral states of the Persian Gulf, Lebanon and Syria as well as Iranian expatriates residing in Canada and Germany, according to Financial Tribune.
“Cosmetic and open heart surgeries, as well as orthopedic and female sterility treatments top the list of causes for which health tourists visit Iran,” he said.
Agreement to Shun Middlemen
Referring to the activities of middlemen in this field, the official said a black market has been created for providing medical services to tourists, which also imply the lack of a precise figure about the number of health tourists visiting the country.
“To curb the detrimental effects of these activities, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Health Ministry and the Iranian Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization on May 14, 2019. The document defines the general policies of health tourism in the country,” Panahi said.
According to Secretary of Health Tourism Steering Council Amin Haqiqat, the agreement has brought related bodies closer for exercising better supervision over services provided to health tourists.
“The two sides have planned and imparted training for their workforce to be able to offer better, more organized services to tourists seeking treatment and cure for their ailments,” he said.
As per the MoU, the two sides will continue to cooperate in granting permits to companies that extend diagnostic and treatment services, as well as to hospitals that meet the requirements of admitting health tourists. Tourism service fees will be set and supervised by official bodies.
“Medical tariffs are being defined for services provided to health tourists. These tariffs include the cost of medical services without the subsidies allocated by the government to Iranian citizens. Nevertheless, hospitals allowed to admit foreign patients could give discounts on their services. This can stir health centers to optimize and better their services and facilities,” the official said.
Haqiqat added that since the MoU was signed three months ago, middlemen have found it more difficult to be active in this sector and many have applied to set up a company and work legally in collaboration with professional bodies.
Shiraz: A Medical Tourism Hub
The southwestern Shiraz metropolis, capital of Fars Province, is already one of Iran's top tourist destinations, but it is increasingly focusing on health tourism as a major revenue stream. The city has managed to attract a growing number of visitors, both local and foreign, looking to use its health tourism facilities.
According to Abdolkhaleq Keshavarzi, the deputy head of Shiraz University of Medical Sciences, a majority of foreign tourists who visit Fars Province come for eye, plastic and other specialized surgeries offered at local hospitals.
The university official recently told Mehr News Agency that most visitors come from Oman, Iraq and Qatar while some were European nationals from the UK and Sweden. He pointed out that European health tourists are showing a preference to the province, especially since a majority of private hospitals in Shiraz have received national permits to attract health tourists.
Keshavarzi also announced that representatives from Oman have signed a contract with the Shiraz University of Medical Sciences to establish a specialized clinic. Omani investors will provide 50% of the required capital with the university accounting for the rest.
"Specialists will be sent from Shiraz to visit patients, but surgeries will be conducted in state-run and specialized hospitals of Shiraz," he said.
He announced that the province is planning to offer incentives to attract more patients from Tajikistan and Iraq without elaborating further.
Based on a directive approved by the Cabinet last year, Iran has waived the need to obtain visas for Omani residents. The move was in recognition of recent facilities extended by the Omani government to Iran for boosting the country's health tourism sector.
Parliamentarians of Shiraz are also following up on boosting their city's health tourism sector. One of them announced that measures are underway to establish a health city in the metropolis.
"A health city will soon be established in the western part of Shiraz," Shiraz MP Ali Akbari said. "The land has already been bought but some issues remain, which will be solved soon."
Akbari said the city will create new treatment facilities to help attract foreign tourists, which will only add to the city's cultural, historical and religious attractions.
"When countries are sanctioned, the best way for a dynamic economy is to attract tourists as a fundamental way of earning revenues and creating jobs," the MP said.
Health tourism is expected to play a vital role in expanding the overall tourism sector, which is being increasingly bolstered in the face of reimposed US sanctions.