Traveling abroad to be treated medically is becoming more popular than ever, thanks to not just affordable airfare but countries positioning themselves to capitalize on what is being called “medical tourism.”
Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, was the focal point this week for the third Global Healthcare Travel Forum run by the Global Healthcare Travel Council – an organization that helps to develop the medical tourism industry in 58 member countries. Healthcare professionals from the public and private sectors gathered to discuss trends, best practices and the way forward for what is still a nascent industry.
“We were talking over many years about how to organize the global understanding for the healthcare tourism industry, which has already reached a $50 billion turnover,” said the founding chairman of the council, Emin Chakmak, during a speech he gave at the forum.
“More than 500 million people are traveling from continent to continent, from country to country for spa and wellness, for medicals, for thermal tourism, for retirement tourism, for sports tourism,” he said. “They are seeking for better and advanced [medical] technologies and infrastructure. All our member countries try to bring up their special and unique products for those who look for affordable and quality medical care.”
"Global Healthcare for All” is the motto that had been selected for this year’s forum, which has as a focus the medical tourism potential of Azerbaijan. The council’s founding chairman, Emin Chakmak, said the Caspian country has unique healthcare-related materials, services and market segmentation which is not available in many other countries. These include cities such as Naftalan and Nakhchivan, which are renowned for their mineral-rich oils and natural substances said to contain healing properties.
The council’s president, Ruslan Guliyev, said the healthcare tourism industry in Azerbaijan has its roots in traditions and infrastructure that was built during the Soviet period, when over one and a half a million health-conscious travelers came to Azerbaijan.
“Naftalan resort, where 5,000 people could once receive medical care is now expanded to a cutting-edge complex thanks to innovative approaches and a well-thought branding strategy, and travelers from around the world find Azerbaijan as one of the fastest growing medical tourism destinations in the world,” Guliyev said in his remarks at the forum.
Naftalan, located in central Azerbaijan, is home to natural spas and facilities that have curative crude oil. The unique grade of black-brown, thick oil found there is reported to have a composition that has helped patients suffering from rheumatism, arthritis and psoriasis, as well as 67 other illnesses or ailments. The oil loses its curative power in any other place than Naftalan due to its sensitive composition, according to investigations carried out by the National Academy of Sciences. Over 65,000 local and foreign patients received medical care in the area in 2018.
Sulfur-rich waters found at the Galaalti resort – a thermal spring in Masalli and located in the southern part of the country – and the Duzdag salt mine is also significantly effective in treating dozens of illnesses and health problems such metabolism malfunction, excess uric acid and acidity of gastric juices, immune system weakness, premature aging, as well as rheumatism, sciatica, bronchial asthma, kidney and urinary tract infections.
Kenan Gasimov, the head of the department at the State Tourism Agency of Azerbaijan, said that given the vast healthcare tourism potential of the Caspian country, the central government in Baku will be adopting an action plan in the near future for the development of the medical tourism sector.
“In Azerbaijan, there are significant opportunities for substantial success in this area, however, it is necessary to eliminate the shortcomings that impede the development of opportunities for health tourism,” Gasimov said at the forum in Baku.
“To lead in this area, you need to follow the new trends and new standards. To do this, each created product must be developed in accordance with international standards. And, to win in the competition, you need to demonstrate their advantages. At the same time, efforts will be increased to support positive processes in Naftalan, Duzdag and other similar health centers.”
Around 150 participants at the forum included representatives from the Croatian Medical Travel Association, Ukrainian Association of Medical Tourism and the German Medical Wellness Association. General managers of recreational therapy facilities, experts and scientists representing the healthcare sector from 20 different countries including Russia, Georgia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Kyrgyzstan, China and India were also present. Representatives from Azerbaijan’s state-run energy company SOCAR, the State Tourism Agency, the Entrepreneurs Confederation, the Trade Unions Confederation, the National Academy of Sciences and other public organizations attended the conference.
This year’s forum came a year after Azerbaijan was elected to the council’s presidency at the organization’s fourth General Assembly Meeting at the Turkish resort city of Antalya last April. According to the rotating presidency of the council, the presiding country is to host the following year’s event.