The economic crisis punished most economic sectors of Costa Rica in 2009. Exports and imports fell, foreign direct investment suffered, real estate sales plummeted and the country welcomed about 200,000 fewer tourists.
But one economic sector defied the downward effects of the crisis. While other sectors struggled to keep their heads above water, medical tourism in Costa Rica remained steady; members of the industry estimate the country welcomed between 30,000 and 100,000 medical tourists last year.
“Medical tourism showed some leveling off, but it really hasn’t decreased from where it was in 2008,” said Brad Cooke, director of the International Department at ClínicaBíblicaHospital in San José. “We’ve seen some positive trends here at the beginning of the year with a lot of inquiries from interested patients. I think the country is doing a lot to promote Costa Rica as a medical tourism destination, such as international conferences here and in other countries, and maybe things like that will help things take off again.”
Most members of the sector agree medical tourism will take off again in the next 12 months, and there is history to support this forecast. In the past five years, the number of tourists visiting for the purpose of cosmetic surgery, dental work and checkups has ballooned.
According to Jorge Cortés, director of Clínica Bíblica and president of the Council for International Promotion of Costa Rican Medicine (PROMED), about 50 percent of the country’s steadily growing number of medical tourists come for cosmetic surgery, and the other 50 percent come for orthopedic and weight loss surgeries, among other procedures.
Of these medical tourists, approximately 90 percent hail from the United States. While the cost of health care in that country remains high and reform is yet to be realized, patients continue to look for less expensive options. They find them in Costa Rica.
“The greatest motivation for medical tourism … is that people are looking for the highest quality at the lowest price,” Cortés said. “In Costa Rica, our cosmetic surgery on average costs one-third less than it does in the U.S.”
With the number of medical tourists expected to remain high, the three major private Costa Rican hospitals – Clínica Bíblica (www.clinicabiblica.com), CIMA Hospital in the western suburb of Escazú (www.hospitalcima.com) and La Católica Hospital in the northeastern suburb of Guadalupe (www.hospitallacatolica.com) – are all gearing their operations to cater to the market, most notably by making plans to construct new locations in Guanacaste.
All three private hospitals are in the process of planning new sites in the tourist-magnet northwestern province: La Católica has announced plans to construct a clinic, Clínica Bíblica has purchased land where a new hospital will be developed, and CIMA is in the preconstruction phase of a $125 million hospital project to be built in seven stages. According to CIMA Hospital Marketing Manager Ricardo Cordero, the project is now in the final stages of permitting and approval of plans, and expects to break ground in April.
All three of the planned hospitals’ will be located within a few miles of DanielOduberInternationalAirport in Liberia, Guanacaste’s principal city.
Clínical Bíblica’s Cooke said patients who come to Costa Rica for medical work often travel either before or after their procedures are performed. A location in Guanacaste would offer tourists much closer proximity to that region’s various attractions, such as the Pacific beaches, national parks and volcanoes in the northwest part of the country.
Lou Aguilera of Pacific Plaza Health and Living, which is developing the CIMA project in Guanacaste, said the additional locations will only lure more medical tourism to Costa Rica, the established leader of the industry in Latin America.
“In times of economic adjustment, people tend to postpone sumptuary expenses, but health care is a basic need,” Aguilera said. “Moreover, one aspect of the market we have seen is that medical tourism possibly may grow as a result of the continuing crisis, as more people take advantage of the differences in cost between medicine in the United States and Costa Rica.”
“We are preparing for more patients,” Aguilera added. “At this time we have the capacity to increase the number of patients by 40 percent.”
Medical Tourism on Display
Costa Rica is set to host the first Latin America Global Medicine and Wellness Conference April 26 to 28 at the HotelRamadaHerraduraInternationalConferenceCenter in Cariari, northwest of San José.
Organizers expect some 350 participants, including insurance companies, tourism agencies and investors, from 20 countries to attend the showcase event for the country’s medical tourism offerings.
The conference is being organized by the Costa Rican Tourism Board, the Foreign Trade Promotion Office, the Competitiveness Ministry, the Chamber of Exporters and the Council for International Promotion of Costa Rican Medicine.
A Web site for the event is under construction at www.globalmedicinecongress.com.