South Korea's boom in medical tourism

South Korea has long been a destination for Asians seeking plastic surgery, but now the country is aiming to be a destination for people seeking many other medical services.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

The South Korean government is not exactly embarrassed by the country’s Asia-wide reputation for plastic surgery; it’s too big a moneymaker for that. But the authorities are eager to attract foreigners in the future with a wider range of medical services.

Boasting state-of-the-art facilities at the best hospitals, and competitive pricing, the Korean Health Ministry has been boosting medical tourism since 2009, says Lim In-taek, head of the ministry’s Bureau of Health Industry.

Though his office has done “very little real promotion,” he says, word of mouth boosted visitor numbers from 60,000 in 2009 to 80,000 in 2010. “This is a very flourishing area,” says Mr. Lim – flourishing enough for him to have set a target for 2015 of 300,000 medical tourists.

“We are focusing on the highly profitable patients,” he explains. Though the largest number of patients comes from the United States (there were 14,000 Americans last year, nearly 20 percent of the total), the biggest spenders come from Russia, Mongolia, Hong Kong, and Vietnam, according to official figures. “So they are our target countries” Lim says.

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