Hong Kong, logic would say, should have tapped handsomely into the burgeoning mainland market for cosmetic surgery. Linguistic and cultural affinity and transport links aside, we offer a high standard of medical care, advanced treatment, quality service and world-class facilities. The government has been pushing our city as a medical tourism destination since 2007, when Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen identified it as one of six new pillar industries. Yet, only a small percentage of patients are coming here and even residents are joining the droves heading for regional rivals Taiwan and South Korea.
It is mostly a matter of cost. High rents and wages have cut into competitiveness, which has led to fewer hospital beds. But there are other factors. Authorities and the private sector have been slow to respond to trends, allowing India, Singapore and Thailand to gain early ground in medical tourism generally, while South Korea and now Taiwan have leapt on the demand for cosmetic services.
Reversing the trend will not be easy, but there is a chance of picking up a bigger slice. For now, a weak US dollar and the Hong Kong dollar peg allow for a measure of cost advantage. Concerted marketing at the estimated 100 million people across the border who now have the financial means to travel elsewhere for treatment will be a boost. Above all else, though, better government co-ordination with the private sector to make our city a more affordable destination will bring in a greater share of the potential billions of dollars on offer.
What is needed is the determined effort that has so far been lacking. Grand plans are of little use if they are unveiled to great fanfare but not followed up with timely, concrete measures. Two years after the medical tourism policy was announced, just four new sites were allocated for private hospitals. If affordability continues to be problematic for even our cosmetic surgery clinics, we will have let a golden opportunity be snatched away.