The Covid -19 pandemic has impacted the tourism industry across the globe due to the resulting travel restrictions as well as the slump in demand among travellers.
Healthcare tourism, an industry that is heavily reliant on international travellers, is one of the segments hardest hit. For many nations, the sector is one of the key contributors to their economic growth.
Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) CEO Mohd Daud Mohd Arif said that it is the same case with Malaysia, as the healthcare tourism industry and its players mostly rely on international travellers.
"The reality is the ongoing pandemic has certainly put a great dent on the industry, owing to lockdowns and border restrictions," he said.
Therefore, he asserted that concerted efforts from both the public and private healthcare players must be commended for their agility and adaptability in handling a health outbreak of this scale, especially as the nation progresses towards the endemic phase.
"Cross collaboration with tourism stakeholders and our industry networks abroad is crucial in accelerating not only our industry's recovery but also our nation’s healthcare landscape to move forward," he said when contacted recently.
Towards this end, Mohd Daud said, MHTC will give an undivided focus on building confidence in Malaysia as a safe and trusted healthcare travel destination especially within target markets including Indonesia and China.
"We are also working closely with our member hospitals to determine other markets to focus on, such as the Middle East, which is a favourable market for Malaysia due to our standing as a global halal hub, further spurring the industry as a key economic growth driver for post-Covid-19 economic recovery.
"Through these key initiatives and cross-collaboration, we believe Malaysia will be further propelled as the leading global destination for healthcare,” he said.
Mohd Daud said cross-collaboration is vital to ensure the industry bounces back from the pandemic.
Citing initial projections, he noted, Malaysia's healthcare tourism sector is expected to generate RM7bil to the economy by 2025 through healthcare travellers spending on medical, tourism, transportation, hotels, food and beverages, and other services.
He added, MHTC will also continue to build trust through engagement with all stakeholders locally and internationally for Malaysia's healthcare travel sector via industry-driven initiatives such as the insigHT2021 conference, which will be held virtually from Nov 16 to Nov 18 this year.
"InsigHT is the region’s leading three-day medical travel market intelligence conference, where industry players gather to strategise and collaborate in sustaining the healthcare travel industry.
"We expect to receive around 800 participants from more than 30 countries, hosting more than 40 speakers from different regions. Some notable names include World Health Organisation (WHO) representatives, Mayo Clinic, and Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT),” he said.
To ensure the industry is on track for a rebound, healthcare tourism providers are encouraged to arm themselves with the necessary standard operating procedures (SOPs) and infrastructure to support and deliver a much safer patient experience.
They should also provide assurance on patient safety from arrival, throughout treatment and upon returning home, he said.
"This will be done mainly via digital publicity and branding campaigns, providing patient support, and enhancing our end-to-end infrastructure including digital adoption, as well as cementing Malaysia as a thought leader in healthcare travel,” he added.
To drive MHTC’s recovery plan, Mohd Daud said that MHTC will be launching the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Industry Blueprint 2021-2025 next month.
The blueprint is a holistic effort that aims to be the document that guides the industry forward and involves all stakeholders across the journey.
It also serves as a guided direction for ecosystem players to provide the best experience for healthcare travellers.
He pointed out that the main priority now is to forge resilience for the industry to steer the path towards realising the blueprint's objective by 2025.
Meanwhile, senior lecturer at the Faculty of Hotel & Tourism Management, Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) Melaka, Ahmad Khairuman Md Hasim said that medical tourism has been a big contributor to the tourism industry as a whole.
He said that about 1.22 million medical tourists visited Malaysia in 2019, generating revenue of RM1.7bil for the country.
"Research has shown that 74 per cent out of the total spending of a medical tourist were used for non-medical expenditure. It shows that medical tourism not only stimulates growth in the local health industry but also boosts other tourism-related industries such as hotels, retail trade and transportation industries simultaneously,” he said.
On the reopening of Melaka, Genting Highlands and Tioman Island as the travel bubble destinations for domestic tourism after Langkawi Island on Oct 1, he said, the move would benefit those involved in healthcare tourism and domestic tourism industries.
He added, reopening tourism destinations is the only way to ensure the survival of the hotel sector.
According to the Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH), at least 120 hotels have ceased operations either temporarily or permanently due to Covid-19, while those that are still in operation have been reducing or laying off their staff in order to survive.
"Hence, encouraging domestic tourism can be the first phase in reviving the hotel and hospitality businesses before planning on other phases that includes reopening international borders.
"So, employing a domestic travel bubble has its advantage in implementing standard SOPs and controlling tourist traffic. This will create an easier procedure for domestic tourists to follow and result in significant travel traffic to the tourist destinations mentioned,” he said.
Besides hotel operators, hospitality supporting services such as car rental companies, souvenir shops and food & beverage outlets, will also gain from the opening of domestic tourism since their core market is from tourists, he noted.
Besides adhering to the SOPs, Ahmad Khairuman said industry players can leverage the hybrid working model and still find success in providing excellent customer service.
"A combination of digital and traditional platforms could reduce face-to-face interaction between the employees and tourists. Pre-bookings and menu selection in restaurants, self-check-in at hotels, digital payments and consistent online communication can be easily implemented by using any platform, even the basic online interface such as WhatsApp or telegram,” he shared.