Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, medical tourism in South Africa was among the fastest developing sectors in the country, but more needs to be done to help industry capitalise on this trend.
Medical tourism simply refers to “travelling to another country for medical care”, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
South Africa is ranked by the Southern African Development Community as the leader in the African market for medical tourism, and is a minor hub worldwide alongside nations like India, Singapore and Thailand, according to a study conducted by Wesgro.
Stats and market size
Data provided to Tourism Update by Stats SA shows that 24 006 travellers arrived in the country for medical purposes from 2018-2022. The numbers dipped due to the pandemic but are steadily increasing.
Stats SA’s numbers for the four-year period indicate that most medical tourists came from SADC countries (17 180), followed by Europe (2 600), East and Central Africa (1 667), West Africa (964), North America (625), and Asia (528). The rest was made up of South and Central American countries, Australasia, and the Middle East.
The combined world-wide market size was estimated at between US$45.5bn and US$72bn in 2017. There is not enough data for post-pandemic stats.
What the professional says
Tourism Update spoke to Dr Anushka Reddy to find out about the current situation regarding medical tourism in South Africa.
Reddy – a medical doctor who started Vivari Aesthetics and runs Medi-Sculpt on the same premises as Vivari Hotel and Spa in Featherbrooke near the Cradle of Humankind in Johannesburg – believes South Africa has the best medical infrastructure and best medical expertise on the continent, as medical tourists have access to safe, high-quality care.
She said Vivari had seen an increase in enquiries and bookings from patients travelling primarily from Africa.
“Patients travel mostly from Nigeria, Ghana and Zambia looking for safe plastic surgery offerings in a discreet environment. Patients are high-nett-worth individuals who only want the best treatments. They include celebrities, politicians and business travellers.”
Vivari Aesthetics offers surgical procedures on-site as well as a luxurious five-star recuperation facility designed with adjustable beds and around the clock nursing care, and chef-prepared meals delivered to their room.
The most sought-after procedures are for body shaping. It entails 360-degree liposuction of strategic areas such as the stomach, back and love handles, and transferring the fat to areas that need it most such as the breasts and buttocks.
“Mummy make-overs are also quite popular amongst women after they’ve had their children. These procedures are designed to restore the body to its pre-pregnancy state. These body procedures are popular because it helps to shape a woman’s body and restore confidence,” Reddy said.
Another popular cosmetic procedure for patients with a normal weight was Vaser liposculpting, which created sculpted bodies in men and women such as a six pack, Reddy added.
She said there was a lot of room to grow this niche sector, and has advised tourism officials to promote the country as a top medical tourism hub.
“South Africa has, unfortunately, not jumped on the medical tourism bandwagon like Turkey and Thailand. There are very few facilities geared for medical tourism. It is a travesty, since South Africa has so much to offer. The government, and more specifically SA Tourism, need to pitch the country to the world as a world-class medical tourist destination.”