Is Health Tourism Possible?

By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

This is the burning question in the minds of Ipohites, who are being constantly reminded by, you know who, that the city is ready for health tourism, given its first-class medical facilities and infrastructure. Even when a ding-dong battle was going on between the stakeholders and the airport authority, which nearly derailed efforts to revive the Sultan Azlan Shah Airport, the optimism was simply too good to dismiss.

It prompted one very enthusiastic locally-established airline to consider buses to ferry passengers between Bayan Lepas Airport in Penang and Ipoh when the airport runway was declared unusable due to sinkholes. This is one bad experience which Ipohites have come to terms with, as the Azlan Shah Airport is indeed an enigma on the verge of becoming a white elephant.

The Ipoh-Medan route is considered lucrative as that is where the money is. Flying in and flying out wealthy Medanese for medical screening and medical check-ups has been the mainstay of airlines plying the Medan-Penang route. It’s no denying that cities like Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca have been riding on the crest of health tourism for a number of years, making huge profits in return.

Ipoh, for reasons of expedience, has been left out in the cold without any relief in sight. The singular excuse that is making the rounds is that Ipoh is located in between Kuala Lumpur and Penang and, therefore, visitors prefer to give it a miss. The existence of a ‘nonfunctional airport’ accentuates the problem.

The reason is largely fictional, as the issue is not geographical disposition but rather the dearth of promotional activities to put Ipoh on the health tourism map. Both the public and the private sectors are equally at fault. It is a chicken-and-egg thing, as neither side knows when and where to start. The impasse has been dragging on far too long and the opportunity cost missed is enormous.

Perak Tourism Association led by its president, Hj Odzman Kadir, took upon itself to undo the wrong by calling for a meeting of stakeholders. The aim was simple – to find a workable solution to the problem. The initiative was timely as the Ipoh airport has been operable since November last year. Three airlines are presently using the facility as their gateway to destinations outside of Ipoh.

“Time and tide wait for no man” as the saying goes. Something needs to be done and done fast. Each passing day adds on to the loss. How long can the state suffer when Dato’ Nolee Ashilin, the Executive Councillor for Tourism and Culture, had proudly proclaimed that breaching the 5-million visitors target in 2015 was never a problem? Was it an idle boast or an assumption? I shall leave that to conjecture.

The ‘round-table meeting’ at Syeun Hotel on Tuesday, March 24 was attended by some 40 representatives from airlines, hospitals, hotels, tour agencies and operators, Tourism Perak and the state government. The forum could not have been better. It was, undoubtedly, an opportune moment to discuss health tourism in detail and to find ways to break the deadlock.

As I have said, it is improper to blame the state government or the private sector for inaction as both parties are equally at fault – the state government for procrastinating while the private sector for hesitating. Two of the five private hospitals in Ipoh had taken steps to attract clients in Medan. One fell flat on its face while the other succeeded. Therefore, it is not something impossible.

There should be a coordinated effort in promoting Ipoh as a preferred health-tourism destination. Private hospitals in Penang work as a team making forage abroad to attract clients. A similar model could be established here but someone needs to give it a nudge. And the one with the right credentials is Tourism Perak, as it has the resources and the capacity to make things tick.

A Medan trade exposition in April is in the pipeline. Tourism Perak is making a move and this is definitely a good sign. The only problem is whether the interested parties are prepared to take on the challenge.


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