Issue 1, 2019. February-March



Georgia is attracting a record number of tourists, but more needs to be done to raise awareness of its nascent medical tourism sector.

Georgia's tourism success is no secret. In 2017, Georgia was listed as the world's fourth fastest-growing tourism destination by the UN World Tourism Organization's 2017 report.

In 2018, Georgia smashed its own record for international travelers, clocking in at 8 million visitors between January and November, of which almost 4.5 million were tourists-a 17.2 percent increase compared to the same period in 2017.

Despite the boom in tourism at large, there are plenty of tourism sectors still waiting to be developed and whose potential has yet to be tapped.

Of the 4.5 million tourists in 2018, few came to the country for medical services. Those who did accounted for only approximately 16,500 arrivals on average per quarter in 2018, or just 2.76 percent of tourists.

These numbers only tell part of the story, however, as the medical tourism industry in Georgia is still in a developmental stage.

Room to Grow

Back in the early and mid-2000s, there were several attempts at positioning Georgia as a medical tourism destination and a short-lived boom of activity, when an average of 20,000 tourists were coming into the country per quarter for medical purposes.

However, there was little lasting effect, and the numbers quickly sunk back down to their current level.

Medical tourism has taken off in neighboring Turkey, and even Iran boasts larger numbers than Georgia-of six million tourists in the one-year period from March 2016 to March 2017, the Iranian Ministry of Health registered some 105,000 inbound patients.

So what's happening with medical tourism in Georgia, what does Georgia have to offer, and what can be done to encourage industry growth?

The Georgian National Tourism Administration's Tamar Kakhidze believes the sector is poised for growth.

"Georgia already has a lot to offer in the way of dentistry, ophthalmology, plastic surgery, cardiology and other fields. There is room for development elsewhere as well, as medicine was particularly well-developed in Georgia in the Soviet period, and medical staff are now well-trained according to Western standards," Kakhidze noted.

Tskaltubo sanatorium

There is growing awareness of the country's potential as a medical tourism destination, she said.

"Many years ago, maybe there were stereotypes about Georgia, and foreigners might have questioned the logic of seeking medical care or similar services in the country. But the Georgian National Tourism Administration (GNTA) and even the private sector has done much to raise awareness about the country abroad. Stereotypes of Georgia as a former Soviet state on the fringes of Europe have long dissipated," Kakhidze says.

What makes Georgia an attractive destination? Well, to begin with, Kakhidze says, there are the factors of price and service.

"In those terms, Georgia is hard to beat in the region. Though we do attract our neighbors, Georgia is even more marketable in Europe and beyond when you take into consideration the price and quality of services here," she said.

Moreover, the country is rich in spa-resorts, microclimates, and boasts a rich culture and cuisine: all good reasons to come for medical care and stay to recuperate.

But why is Georgia still lagging behind in the numbers?

Kakhidze says that medical tourism has only recently made its way onto the agenda of the GNTA.

"We've recently published a number of brochures for spa-resort related tourism that we present at fairs abroad. Now, we are preparing a similar packet of information related to healthcare and medical-tourism services in the country. Maybe there isn't enough awareness yet out there about medical care in Georgia, but we're working on it, and we'll get the word out."

The Head of the Reproductive Health Center of Chachava Clinic, Keti Gotsiridze, noted people already visit Georgia for surrogacy services.

"People are coming in from everywhere. As far as Australia, and as close as Israel and Germany-especially Germany! I can say that we have equal numbers of clients coming in from across the world."

One thing that brings people to Georgia is the liberal legislation, Gotsiridze told, especially when it comes to medical services such as surrogacy.

"Right now, Georgia, and additionally Ukraine, are the leading destinations for people seeking surrogacy services. Thailand, India and Mexico were some of the first countries to offer these services, but legislation there has limited its availability. Of course, there's always the U.S., but there, surrogacy services can run you $150,000 per delivery, whereas here, we can offer the service at about $30,000 to $40,000, depending on our client's needs."

The response of the Georgian government has largely been hands off, says Gotsiridze. The health and safety of surrogate mothers is ensured by legislation, and surrogate mothers are well-informed of what such a commitment entails.

"The [Georgian Orthodox] Church has reacted similarly. There are certainly members of the Church who do not like the idea, but many are open to it if they are properly presented with the information . . . and at the end of the day, these women are doing something wonderful, a miracle really. That's hard not to see," Gotsiridze says.

Natia Narmania, Marketing and Sales Director of American Medical Centers Georgia, says that a number of recent initiatives put forward by the Georgian government could pave the way for the country to attract patients interested in other medical services.

"From simply easing visa restrictions or visa-free travel to Georgia, providing investment and subsidies or tax-breaks for larger healthcare organizations and investments, to sponsoring research and development, much can and is being done to stimulate growth in the sector," she said.

Narmania noted that more can be done.

"Corporate incentives also play a role in promoting medical tourism," she said. "For example, recently, Turkish Airlines began to give significant discounts for medical travel flights, thereby boosting international patients inbound to Turkey. Similar measures could be introduced in Georgia."