These days travel agents are hawking more than holiday packages. With India's healthcare facilities improving, the country is becoming a major destination for medical tourism.
Cashing in on the trend are leading travel agencies like Thomas Cook, Cox & Kings and Kuoni, which have drawn up a slew of healthcare packages.
Apollo Hospitals has entered into a tie-up with Sita, the Kuoni group's inbound travel arm, to launch a jointly developed project, Sita Care.
Thomas Cook has roped in leading surgeon Padam Sanghvi as its medical tourism project adviser and is wrapping up a deal with a leading hospital chain in India.
Cox & Kings has tied up with Vedic India and Omkar Trust, two leading medical bodies that promote medical tourism in India. The Mumbai-based Jaslok Hospital has an informal tie up with Air-India and the Taj group of hotels.
Dr Batra's Positive Health Clinic, also Mumbai-based, has a tie up with Cox & Kings, Brightland Holidays and Sterling Resorts, which offer discounts to members.
Says Peter Kerkar, global chief executive officer of Cox & Kings, "We are talking to some speciality eye-care hospitals in south India and other healthcare chains in the country. While there is huge business potential arising out of the difference in the cost of treatment, we as travel operators do not intend to get involved with post-treatment health risks."
Adds George Eapen, CEO of Apollo Hospitals: "There has been a considerable increase in the flow of foreigners to India seeking medical treatment. Apart from non-resident Indians, US and European nationals have also started recognising the capabilities of Indian doctors." Patients who come to India for medical care account for 10 per cent of the Apollo group's 6,500 beds.
The $1 billion per annum medical tourism sector is expected to grow by 15-20 per cent, "if initiatives are taken by both the government and the private sector to market it strategically", feels Eapen.
But what is fuelling growth is the low cost of healthcare in India. Unlike its Western counterparts, which are saddled with prohibitive costs, India has the right mix of skills and value-for-money offerings.
An angioplasty package at Apollo Hospitals costs $4,000 (around Rs 180,000) which includes airport pick-up and drop, in-house travel related services, hotel stay for the attendant, one-day local sight-seeing by an air-conditioned car, interpreter when required, embassy contacts when required, local transport, besides three nights patient's stay in the hospital. Similar treatment in suite class costs around $9,000.
Dr Batra's clinic has attracted patients from over 86 countries. "A patient from the US stays in a five-star hotel for a minimum of five days and also does some sight seeing and shopping. This, in turn, adds to the tourism and hotel industry's revenues," says Mukesh Batra, chairman and managing director of the eponymous clinic.
And where does the travel agent come in? Post surgery or prior to it, the travel agents assist the patients and accompanying attendants with recommended two to seven-day India tour plans. And the spoils are shared between the hospital and travel agent.
While the profit margin for the hospitals is between 20 and 25 per cent, depending on the volume and the case, the travel agents get somewhere between 7-10 per cent, depending on the package.Well, that's what we call trying to kill two birds with one stone.