As Tourists Flock to Burma, Country’s Wealthy Fly Out for Health

By William Boot 15 July 2013

While Burma struggles to cope with a surge in foreign tourists, increasing numbers of Burmese are flying out of the country to spend millions of dollars on improving their health.

The phenomenon of tens of thousands of wealthy Burmese seeking medical treatment abroad was spotlighted by a travel trade magazine which last week warned of the inadequacy of Burma’s health care for tourists.

“You don’t want to get sick in Mandalay or any other city in [Burma],” TTR Weekly advised in a report on the ease of flying now to Burma’s second-largest city from Thailand.

“Medical tourism is booming in Mandalay in an outbound direction. It all goes by airlines to Bangkok where the lucky patients check in the city’s top private hospitals and pay a premium to regain their health,” said the report.

“The rest of Mandalay’s population is in a pickle public health-wise and so are tourists if they haven’t bothered with travel insurance.”

Burma’s poor hospital and medical infrastructure may present problems for foreigners visiting the country, but it is boosting business enormously for Bangkok’s booming private hospitals industry by netting tens of millions of dollars a year from wealthy Burmese seeking treatment they cannot get at home.

Bangkok Hospital Group (BHG) says it handled 22,200 patients from Burma in 2012. This year to date, the number of Burmese passing through BHG’s hospitals is up more than 40 percent, said the company’s international marketing director Ralf Krewer.

And that perhaps shouldn’t be too surprising: BHG has 13 promotional offices across Burma to cater to the surging health care demand.

“Unfortunately, at the moment [Burma’s] health care system is not that developed as, for example, in Thailand, so for us [Burma] was a very obvious target to enter at a very early point and we were very successful in doing so,” Krewer said.

“Burma is now [our] biggest foreign market worldwide.”

Burmese are going to Thailand for both preventative health care treatment and for surgery to treat existing problems. They are seeking treatment for cancer, heart ailments and orthopedic problems such as hip replacements.

At BHG, the average payment by Burmese for a major surgery is around 330,000 baht (US$10,600), and for general health check-ups 24,000 baht.

The demand for health services from Burmese able to travel abroad and the rapid growth in tourism to Burma is a double incentive for Thailand-based private hospital companies to consider moving their businesses into the country.

BHG rival Bumrungrad Hospital International (BHI) has an agreement with Serge Pun and Associates to manage a new private hospital built on the Pun Hlaing Golf Estate in Rangoon’s Hlaing Thar Yar Township.

The Pun Hlaing Hospital is small, however, with accommodation for just over 100 patients—compared with 550 at Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok, which is the biggest private hospital in Southeast Asia.

Another Bangkok-based hospital group, Dusit Medical Services, has said it is planning to acquire land in Burma to build a new hospital, but is waiting for the clarification of several investment laws.

The surge in tourism into Burma promises to provide a new long-term source of revenue, as it does in Thailand. Hotels and Tourism Minister Htay Aung said last week that 10,000 rooms of extra accommodation will be ready by the end of this year, but admitted there was a “need to develop infrastructure to support the tourist increase.”

That infrastructure includes roads, transport, modern financial services such as ATMs—and adequate health facilities.

Burma attracted more than 1 million foreign visitors in 2012 and is aiming to triple that number by 2015, putting an even bigger strain on services.

A foreign visitor can pay more than $200 daily staying in some of Burma’s fancy new hotel resorts—like the $217-per-night Rupar Mandalar Resort in Mandalay.

But $1,000 wouldn’t secure a decent bed in a local hospital attended by a skilled medical team. In the meantime, foreign tourists are being advised by some tour operators to take out comprehensive health insurance good enough to pay for them to be flown out of the country to Thailand if need be.

There are plans to modernize the run-down, 1,500-bed Rangoon General Hospital. It will cost tens of millions of dollars to renovate it and add 21st century facilities. The hospital, built by the British in the 19th century, is not generally open to foreigners.

One Bangkok company has begun an air ambulance service.

“We are talking medical evacuation here, not often a topic on the lips of tourism experts,” said TTR Weekly’s Don Ross, who flew to Mandalay last week to test facilities.

“I am told VIP Jets, owned by Asian Trails chairman Luzi Matzig, is heavily booked doing just that from frontier tourism spots of the Mekong region to Bangkok’s posh hospitals.”