Medical tourism operators attempt to salvage business despite European decline
Tunis - The decline in tourism in Tunisia as a result of the 2015 terrorist attacks is not discouraging operators in the country’s thriving specialised medical tourism industry.
Houssem ben Azouz, founder of Cosmetica, a leader in medical tourism in Tunisia, was the first to launch such a business in the country in 2004.
“We play the role of the intermediary that coordinates with the doctors. Once the patients arrive at the airport, we take care of them,” he said. “It is a collaboration between all: the agency as a provider of services; the clinic and the surgeon for the well-being and comfort of the patient.”
He said 90% of the thousands of medical tourism patients in Tunisia in 2015 were Algerian.
Khaled Hayouni, the president of Jasmin Medical Assistance, said that is partly because of proximity but also because medical tourism operators are increasingly seeking non-European customers.
“In the absence of European customers, the African countries are our target as we aim to open offices and branches in African countries that we are working with,” he said.
Ben Azouz said many people travel to Tunisia because of the competence of its plastic surgeons and the privacy which the facilities in the country offer.
“Plastic surgery is quite expensive,” he said. “These [medical tourism] agencies helped democratise plastic surgery. Many [people] also were interested in the concept itself, to have a vacation abroad and do plastic surgery. It kept the issue private and provided them with the anonymity.
“If you do the surgery abroad, you would only spend the night at the [facility], then you are back to your home doing errands, taking care of your family. Here, we offer them the care necessary. With experience, we can tell the duration necessary of the trip so when they go back to their countries, we make sure all is good. The concept appealed to many.”
Tunisia has long been a top destination for hydrotherapy, the use of water in treatment for medical conditions such as arthritis. Its practice in the country dates to Roman times when baths were used to treat battle wounds.
“The different archaeological sites, such as the water temples in Zaghouan, the baths in Bulla Regia and the buildings surrounding the sources of water show that Tunisia since the antiquity has realised the virtues of water,” said Rezig Oueslati, director of the National Office of Thermalism and Hydrotherapy.
In the 1960s, thermal therapy stations flourished in Tunisia with centres operating around hot water springs in Korbous, Hammam Bourguiba, Zaghouan and other towns. By the end of 2014, the number of annual visitors had reached more than 14.000 at some centres.
Tunisia has more than 1,000 thermal springs, which have particular chemical compositions that provide widely recognised therapeutic qualities. Patients are directed to a thermal centre with a water mineral composition that is beneficial to their needs.
“Today Tunisia has four important thermal stations and over 40 hammams offering different cures. Medical tourism nowadays is of great advantages for Tunisia. Visitors, enjoying the beauty of nature and hospitality of the people, can also improve their health by visiting the thermal stations,” Oueslati said in a statement.
“The merit of Tunisia is that it managed to make use of its natural richness and cultural heritage to develop new orientation to diversify our touristic and medical offering to resist competition and regenerate and enlarge the offer of products.”
Despite hydrotherapy’s popularity, however, it witnessed difficulties following the 2011 revolution.
“In thalassotherapy and hydrotherapy, we are leaders. Unfortunately, many thalassotherapy centres closed after the political changes because the hotels closed. They have a good quality and all the qualifications. For thermal tourism, we have a good potential but Tunisia failed to diversify it,” Ben Azouz said.
“Thermalism has an amazing potential. All the south is full of sources of hot water where one can start projects but it is not well developed.”