International: Thailand sells sun and surgery

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[bangkok] Since the coming of sudden acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, most Southeast Asian nations are doing everything they can to disassociate their hospitals from the minds of tourists.

Not Thailand, which is creating a medical tourism industry for foreigners to combine a beach holiday with cheap elective surgery.

Thai Airways International now offers special sun-and-surgery packages through its Royal Orchid Holidays program, which lure visitors from the U.S., Europe and the Middle East. For hospitals, the medical tourist concept is booming. "Last year, we realized a 20% increase in international patient volume," said Ruben Toral, director of international programs at Bumrungrad Hospital, which admitted 264,000 international patients in 2002, generating about $25 million in revenue. The hospital does not use an ad agency, but does do some low-key international campaigns, created in-house or with a local design agency, along with a multilingual web site bumrungrad.com.

Bangkok Hospital is less shy, running print ads in Germany and other European markets, and TV ads on occasion. One quirky print ad for Bangkok Hospital markets its prowess in brain surgery with two mangled coconuts. That ad, seen at Bangkok's airport among other venues, "is meant to build awareness and credibility of [its] expertise in the treatment of neurological disorders," said William Than, assistant managing director of Amex Team Advertising in Bangkok, the hospital's ad agency.

The trend started in 1997, when Thailand's currency collapsed and local hospitals, desperate for cash to care for Thai citizens, turned to foreigners happy to pay the relatively low prices at a handful of clean, Western-operated Thai hospitals-followed by a few days in one of the country's plush resorts. A rhinoplasty procedure, for example, costs about $2,000, including an overnight stay in a private room, compared with $12,000 price tag in, say, Hong Kong.

Most "medical tourists" are looking for elective procedures that insurance companies do not cover. Bumrungrad and Bangkok Hospital offer everything from nose jobs to sex change operations.

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