Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok handles a range of services for Thailand's booming medical tourism industry.

From surgery to service, there's something for every tourist

There are likely only a scant few Hongkongers who, office-bound on a rainy afternoon, have not daydreamed their way to the bustle of Bangkok, the culturally rich north or the idyllic palm-fringed beaches that frame the Land of Smiles.

Supported by:Discovery Reports
Euan McKirdy

There are likely only a scant few Hongkongers who, office-bound on a rainy afternoon, have not daydreamed their way to the bustle of Bangkok, the culturally rich north or the idyllic palm-fringed beaches that frame the Land of Smiles.

As Thailand's greatest source of foreign exchange revenue, the importance of tourism in the country has not diminished. It has long been a tourist hot spot, developing in the early 1970s, as shoestring backpackers first discovered its charm, then evolving into the multimillion-dollar industry that it is today.

In the last couple of years, visitors from around Asia - including Hong Kong and the mainland, which now sends more visitors each year to Thailand than any other nation - have begun to overtake Europeans.

In addition, the country has become the No 1 destination for travellers from Hong Kong.

The increased influx of Asian tourists has been a boon for the Thai tourist industry, with growth and diversification in the luxury property sector - primarily resorts, hotels and villas - developing to suit this new clientele.

Hong Kong's proximity to this tropical paradise has resulted in countless visitors arriving from the city at Thailand's various airports. Savvy Hongkongers, however, are looking for more than just a weekend at the beach.

The advent of low-cost air carriers plying the route between Hong Kong and Bangkok, along with ever-easier online booking procedures, has led to a spike in the number of Hong Kong visitors, and inexpensive domestic flights have further opened up the country for those on time constraints.

While many would see staying out of hospital during their vacation as a sensible goal, health tourism is booming, and Thailand's stature as one of the world's leading medical travel and wellness destinations is well-established.

Alongside the mainland, Hong Kong is responsible for many of the medical tourism bookings - ranging from health checks to cosmetic work and essential surgical procedures - that take place in establishments such as Bangkok's Bumrungrad International Hospital.

"The majority of Hongkongers will opt for procedures such as anti-ageing treatments, where the prices and service are much more competitive," says Mark Hughes, marketing director of Premier Health Services, a Hong Kong-based medical tourist agency. "Frequent scandals with Hong Kong firms have eroded the trust in a beauty industry that tries to offer medical treatment ... [and] we deal with a top-rate clinic in Bangkok that is half the price of a comparable Hong Kong supplier.

"Bangkok Nursing Hospital now has a ward just for Chinese patients, and our partner, Dermaster, is investing in Chinese translators, as are the big hospitals."

In-vitro fertilisation is also a popular service in Thailand, according to Hughes, as it is possible for couples to choose the gender of their baby - an option that does not exist in Hong Kong.

Even more tourists travel to undergo plastic surgery, which, while lagging behind South Korea in terms of quality, is still a less-expensive option than Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, Thailand's upscale spa resorts are benefitting from travellers looking to get pampered. The increased emergence of yoga retreats and detox holidays is in part based on increased interest from markets such as Hong Kong, where harried workers look to their vacation time as a chance to cleanse and recharge the body and soul.

Another soul-cleansing exercise that is gaining popularity in Thailand follows the globally growing trend of "volun-tourism" - short- or long-term volunteer postings in a country - which, especially for younger travellers, offers a chance to experience the nation's culture in a very different and more realistic light, and also ensures that tourist baht and time are well-spent.

From placements in rural schools and orphanages to volunteering at an elephant camp, there are numerous programmes that allow visitors to provide assistance to the people of Thailand.

While visions of a cold drink in hand on a hot beach or a stroll through the lively markets of Bangkok still hold a place in the minds of scores of Hongkongers, it is an ever-widening selection of activities that is making Thailand the premier choice for the city's holiday-seekers.