Health Tourism in the EU: Facts and Figures

Health tourism has been around for thousands of years since the third millennium B.C. In fact, people in ancient Mesopotamia traveled to the temple of a healing god or goddess in Tell Brak, Syria to heal eye disorders. Greeks and Romans also traveled by foot or boat to spas all over the Mediterranean. And now people are traveling from all corners of the world to the EU to receive medical treatments, creating a market called health tourism.

Let us look at the state of health tourism in the EU, where it is headed, who the key players are, and how it could impact your tour operation.

What is Health Tourism?

Health tourism is a form of tourism that consists of patients traveling to other countries to get medical treatment or assistance. It comprises all the services associated with tourism like transport, accommodation, and hospitality. Health tourism consists of medical tourism, wellness tourism (to enhance health), and spa tourism (spas that combine medical and health components). The three components are different but also overlap.

Wellness tourism, in particular, is a broad concept; and its meaning depends on culture and geography in the EU. For example, in southern Europe, wellness tourism is connected to the seaside, the Mediterranean diet, and the slower pace of life. In Scandinavia, the focus of wellness is on outdoor activities like walking and swimming. As you can see, the definition of wellness tourism is diverse across the EU and serves as proof of the overlap between wellness and spa tourism.

All in all, the definition of health tourism is not really clear, making it difficult to include it in tourism statistics. That consequently makes it tricky to measure the importance, growth, and impact of health tourism on the overall tourism industry and economy.

However, we do know that the market for health tourism has grown exponentially in recent years and has led to new forms of health tourism like fertility tourism and dental tourism.

But how much is the industry growing?

Health Tourism in the EU: Facts and Figures

Estimating the total size of the health tourism sector in the EU is difficult because of the limited and fragmented data out there; and also due to the overlapping definitions by different sources and countries.

Although we cannot accurately estimate the total size, the industry has grown substantially in the past decades as citizens of the EU travel from richer countries like the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, Netherlands, and Ireland to seek affordable healthcare in other countries, primarily in Eastern Europe.

It has been growing at 12-15 percent annually, according to research from PwC.

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Why is it growing so fast?

Until quite recently, the top health destinations for Europeans were the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. However, since a new European Directive on Cross-Border Healthcare (which states that there should be free access to treatment in the community space for all EU citizens) in 2014, a new public-pay medical tourism market appeared. As a consequence, countries like Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Poland, and Latvia have become popular destinations for Western Europeans. According to the Polish Association of Medical Tourism, 488,000 of foreign patients came to Poland for medical treatment in 2014.

Health tourism today makes up about 5 percent of the tourism industry in the EU28 and contributes to about 0.3 percent of the EU economy. It in fact has a higher domestic share than traditional tourism does. Therefore, increasing the share of health tourism may lessen the seasonality of tourism, increase labor quality and sustainability.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons countries like Turkey are implementing policies to fuel the health tourism market. In Turkey, which has become a premier and popular destination for medical tourists looking for less complicated treatments, the government offers discounts for patients flying with Turkish Airlines. The government is also planning to introduce tax-free healthcare zones for foreign patients.

More and more governments and companies are offering cheap flights, open borders, and inclusive packages to further fuel this segment of the tourism market.

The Growth of Health Tourism

Let’s take a look at some key statistics from a June 2009 survey that was conducted by the Medical Tourism Association (MTA) to understand why the industry is growing so fast and why it is important for key stakeholders to prioritize health tourism directives:

    • 64% of patients that traveled for care didn’t have health insurance
    • Almost 83% of patients traveled with a companion
    • 33% of patients traveled abroad for cosmetic surgery
    • Almost 90% of patients or their companions engaged in tourism activities
    • Nearly 80% of the demand for medical travel is driven by cost savings
    • Medical tourists spend between €6,083 and €12,885 per medical travel trip
    • 48% of respondents would be interested in engaging in medical tourism again at some point in the future
    • The cost of medical treatment and quality were the most important factors in their decision to travel abroad for treatment
    • Out of 49 participants that had previously traveled overseas for medical treatment, 36% used a medical tourism facilitator


The following statistics from Eurostat and IPK International give us a general overview of the health tourism market in the EU:

  • The total volume of health tourism in the EU is around 56 million domestic arrivals and 5.1 million international arrivals in 2014. (That figure is for health tourism with the main objectives of wellness, spa, and medical treatments.)
  • Health tourism makes up 4.3 percent of all EU arrivals
  • Germany, France, and Sweden are the main players in the health tourism industry in the EU
  • Wellness tourism makes up 66-75 percent of EU health tourism
  • Health tourism brings in €46.9 billion in revenue which represents 4.6 percent of overall tourism revenues and 0.33 percent of EU28 GDP
  • More than 75 percent of EU health tourism revenues come from five countries: Sweden, France, Poland, Italy, and Germany
  • Market reports indicate stability and an increase in health tourism
  • Most medical health tourism clinics also serve local patients and use medical tourism as an additional revenue stream
  • Health tourism may have several benefits to the labor market and the environment

Why Do People Travel for Healthcare?

Patients choose cross-border treatments for various reasons: The possibility of having access to certain treatments that are not available in their countries, the lower cost and higher quality of the treatments; and the opportunity to have a holiday to rest and recover in the destination country. Patients may even spend more time in a hotel that they would at a hospital during their medical trip. Depending on the procedure, they often spend a couple of nights at a hospital and spend the rest of the time in a hotel for recovery or doing physical therapy.

A European Commission survey shows that a large proportion of EU citizens, about 49 percent, is willing to travel for health care. That may be due to the EU directive on healthcare, which says that Member States must reimburse their citizens at the value that the care they receive would cost at home (in order to protect the financial sustainability of national healthcare systems).

However, this gives certain disadvantages to patients from poorer countries with less developed healthcare systems. For example, healthcare services cost substantially less money in Croatia than in Sweden. So a Croatian patient would have to pay out of pocket for the substantial difference in the cost of treatment if they seek medical treatment. Whereas, a patient from a wealthier Member State can seek treatment in Croatia or anywhere else without paying much out of pocket for their care. That scenario is particularly beneficial for wealthier member states as they make economic gains if the treatment is less expensive abroad.


Health tourism is undoubtedly growing at an exponential rate and healthcare and tourism providers are picking up on it. So are governments. National policies in certain countries, like Turkey, are enhancing the growth of health tourism. That is evidence that health tourism is an important strategy within the overall tourism planning.

Do you want to know more about this topic? Feel free to contact us any time!

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