From being one of the most underutilized passports in the world, Chinese tourists have breathed new life recently into airlines, cruise ships and the global hospitality industry as a whole. Much of the journeying began after looser visa restrictions negotiated by the government started in the late ’90s. The country went from 10 million outbound movements in 2000 to 122 million recorded this past year , according to figures from the China Tourism Academy (CTA). To put those numbers into perspective, only 11 countries in the world have a total population comparable to that size.
Chinese travelers took full advantage of the eight-day long “Golden Week” holiday, one of two week-long national holidays observed by mainland China, to globe-trot. Many though opted not to sightsee, but rather to take the opportunity to improve their health. Chinese online travel booking site Ctrip revealed 500,000 Chinese travelled overseas for medical-related services in 2016, a five-fold jump year-on-year.
Amongst the most popular destinations for the Chinese to visit was Thailand, recording over nine million trips from China so far this year. But database provider Euromonitor found that Indonesia posted the highest tourism volume growth of 30% so far in 2017. A long-time favorite of Australians, Bali became a hot spot for Chinese travelers — their numbers surpassed the Aussies for the first time ever reaching 150,000 arrivals, becoming the second most visited island by Chinese tourists after Phuket. And that’s even with the imminent danger of Mount Agungthreatening to erupt at any moment.
Wanderlusting for wellness
“I want to relieve stress, I want more energy, I want to feel better, lose weight, I want to be happy.” This is what the majority of Dr. Nancy Kim’s patients tell her.
She is the oriental medicine consultant at the COMO Shambhala Estate deep in the jungles of Bali where travelers retreat for a heaping dose of mental and physical healing. The estate started offering Ayurveda, an ancient Indian remedy system 13 years ago, long before the wellness boom became mainstream. The property has since branched into acupuncture, Balinese therapy, chi gong, herbal therapy, and even gyro-tonics that is said to promote longevity.
Ctrip’s findings showed that the average spending on medical tourism is around ten times greater than regular outbound Chinese travel. “Most of my patients are very successful professionals… they are overworked, overfed, undernourished and unfulfilled,” says Kim as she profiles the typical guest that checks into the retreat. “We simplify the experience of health to make it approachable.”
Splurging on health tourism
The statistics from Ctrip also concluded that medical care services ranked fourth among the top 10 leisure activities that the site has to offer — whether for general health exams, early cancer screening, genetic-testing or cosmetic surgery which is extremely popular for affluent females traveling to South Korea. Japan’s cancer prevention and early detection programs are also amongst the costliest, but the high price tag doesn’t stop the Chinese from coming. Medical tourism services have now extended to treatments such as placenta anti-aging, living cell therapy, hepatitis c health care and physical therapy.
Another resident doctor of naturopathy at COMO, Dr. Vinod Nair takes a holistic approach by reading a patient’s pulse and giving a facial diagnosis incorporating the five elements of nature — metal, wood, water, fire and earth. He subscribes to the belief that physical ailments are manifestations of emotions and the mind. In his practice, Nair interprets dreams and prescribes exercise and food as medicine.
Make Indonesia a medical destination
As analysts declare Indonesia the “next wave” destination to watch, the local government is targeting 10 million Chinese tourists by 2019. The country is creating three additional tourism focused economic zones and are in the process of courting foreign investors to build more hotels, resorts and entertainment facilities. “Starting next year, we’ll offer just wellness programs without lodging,” Kim says of COMO’s plans to bring more travelers to the property.
To further develop so called “special-interest tourism,” the tourism and health ministry have made it a priority to make Indonesia a medical and wellness destination. To encourage more inbound traffic, Joko Widodo’s administration has plans to roll out stimulus for airlines to open more routes beyond Bali and Jakarta . Meanwhile the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce has called on China to increase the number of flight connections to at least 25 Chinese cities.