While the United States can rely on attractions like the Grand Canyon, Disney Land, the Statue of Liberty to draw tourists from abroad, South Korea’s cultural and geographic assets, such as Seokguram Grotto or Namdaemun Gate, might be less well-known to the rest of the world. Instead, Korea is relying on its soft-power assets to entice tourists. The Korea Tourism Organization often uses K-Pop stars and locations from popular Korean dramas in tourism videos to attract visitors. But over the past few years, medical tourism has proven to be a huge new draw for foreign visitors.
Korea’s medical industry is highly advanced, and makes use of technologies at the forefront of modern medicine. Traditional Eastern remedies are still widely available, however, making it appealing to visitors from the West interested in less conventional treatments. While Korean doctors have become well known for their ability to treat spine ailments and cancers, the fastest-growing treatment sought by medical tourists is plastic surgery. People are coming from all over Asia, as well as the US, to take advantage of Korea’s skilled doctors and relatively lower prices.
Much of the growth in the medical tourism sector was sparked by law changes in 2009 designed to promote medical tourism, such as the creation of new visas for medical tourists to visit the country for extended periods. The Korean government established medical tourism information centers in downtown Seoul and at Incheon airport. Additionally, abundant web resources have popped up in English to provide information, both from the tourism agency and from private companies offering to arrange travel and schedule treatment. According to the Korean Health Industry Development Institute, in 2012 more than 30,000 Americans visited Korea for medical treatment, representing close to 20% of all treatment-seeking visitors. By contrast, in 2008 only 27,000 people from all countries visited for medical purposes. Korea has clearly risen to a place of prominence in the global medical tourism industry, and Americans have certainly noticed.