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Medical tourism biz in India hit by unrest in Kabul

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has taken a toll on one unlikely victim: Indian hospitals that rely on thousands of medical tourists from the war-torn country.

India’s tourism ministry estimates that hospitals have suffered a 9-10% revenue loss in the past month alone because of the upheaval in Afghanistan.

Private hospitals, already seeing dwindling demand for elective surgeries and other such treatments because of the pandemic, received a second jolt with patients from Afghanistan, a significant contributor to India’s medical tourism industry, dwindling to a trickle.

“The revenue from medical value travel in the last two years has already come down by 45%. With the ongoing unrest in Afghanistan, there has been an additional approximately 9-10% loss. The pandemic has hit the medical tourism sector like any other sector,” a tourism ministry official said, requesting anonymity. Medical tourism revenue is now unlikely to reach pre-covid levels until the situation in Afghanistan normalizes, and international travel resumes, the official said.

Taliban took over Afghanistan on 15 August, following a violent military campaign to oust the elected president and capture Kabul. Since then, no medical tourists have visited India for treatment. Fortis Healthcare, one of India’s biggest hospital chains that caters to international patients, said no new patients have come from Afghanistan since 15 August. “Political unrest has directly impacted medical tourism. For Afghan nationals, India is a preferred healthcare destination where hospitals offer world-class quality treatment at a reasonable cost. At least 8-9% of the total medical tourists coming to India comprises Afghans,” said Anil Vinayak, group chief operating officer, Fortis Healthcare.

This has particularly hit those who had already secured medical visas and were set to come to India for scheduled consultations and surgical procedures, he said.

In the absence of air services, around 2,500 people who would come to Fortis Hospitals from Afghanistan for treatment every month are waiting for the situation to stabilize. Most patients need treatment for cardiac, oncology and complex neuro interventions. “Our international business revenue declined 9% over trailing month. Visa requests from Afghanistan have gone down by 75% over a month,” said Vinayak.

The situation at Max Healthcare is no different. “Max Healthcare has been receiving Afghan patients for over 15 years now. Max Hospital, Saket, had an average daily footfall of 50-60 Afghan patients. During covid, the number fell to approximately 20 per day, which had once again started rising after the end of the second covid wave in early June,” said Anas Wajid, senior director and chief sales and marketing officer, Max Healthcare. “Over 600 patients have been issued visa invitation letters and are waiting for visas and flights to resume travel to Max Hospitals. After the political unrest in Afghanistan, patient volumes have shrunk to 3-4 patients a day. This is because of the stoppage of flights from Kabul to Delhi as well as the stoppage of visas being issued by our embassy, which is now shut,” said Wajid.

The medical tourism industry was worth $3 billion in 2015, according to the tourism ministry. The industry was forecasted to reach $9 billion by 2020, but revenues have dried up significantly because of the pandemic. Piyush Tiwari, director for commercial and marketing at India Tourism Development Corp. Ltd (ITDC), expects the sector to recover soon. “As the nation is progressing rapidly with vaccination, cultural and medical tourism is expected to see better recovery in India,” he said.

India is placed 10th on the Medical Tourism Index for 2020-21, owing to affordability, accessibility, and quality medical facilities. Tiwari said the key differentiating factor offered in India in medical tourism is the affordability of high-quality treatment. “There is a stark difference in the cost of common medical procedures in India in comparison to close competitors in the segment. Additionally, India has a strong health infrastructure, with many state-of-the-art healthcare facilities offering treatment across specialities,” said Tiwari. Mint

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