Although one of the reasons is still relatively low service prices, the industry has acknowledged that it could be more successful if state aid was also received. Currently, marketing activities in health tourism are helped by the Latvian Investment and Development Agency (LIAA).
The Latvian Health Tourism Cluster has been operating since 2012 and has brought together 60 members – hospitals, private clinics, rehabilitation centers and other institutions.
The head of the cluster, Gunta Ušpele, said that medical institutions' income from foreign patient service has been on the rise and last year exceeded EUR 11 million. Most of the patients come from countries that are comfortable to fly from – Great Britain, Lithuania, Estonia, Ireland, Finland, Sweden.
“The first is diagnostics, where we are very competitive and we have the latest technology available in the world, especially in private medical establishments and so-called “check-up” health testing programs, which are very popular. It's plastic surgery, it's stomatology, especially implantology, it's infertility diagnostics, treatment, and medical fertilization. Also, eye surgery, laser correction, aesthetic medicine, laser medicine, dermatology, phlebology, proctology, bariatric surgery, gastric bypass,” Ušpele said.
Māris Rēvalds, Chairman of the 4 Board of Health Center 4 (VC4), said that the first half of this year had been successful for the company, with nearly 1,800 patients who had paid €260,000 for services. We can still compete with other European countries, not only with high quality services, but also with lower prices, he said. But the government's decision not to grant state aid to the health tourism cluster was assessed by Rēvalds as a short-sighted step.
"Turkey has been transformed by the Turkish government into such a global destination of medical tourism, there is huge state aid there, Turkish Airlines is also taking part, and these global processes have yielded a good result. In the case of Latvia, medical tourism has never been a priority, and I think it is very short-sighted, because it is a real export of services. For example, the Riga Stradiņš University exports health services with great success. If our doctor's education is already an export product, then medical services could certainly be one," Rēvalds said.
The Director of the LIAA, Kaspars Rožkalns, said that the agency's total tourism budget is EUR 4 million and that a fifth of this amount was directed to advertising health tourism.
“Those priority markets are the UK, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Germany at the moment. We had three different videos last year, and now we have 14 different videos on the services that our medical tourism offers. On average, medical tourists leave more money in the country than other tourists, and this is why medical tourism is one of the priorities of our tourism strategy. We would certainly be delighted if the available support for entrepreneurs were greater, but this should then be seen in the overall budget frame and potential opportunities,” Rožkalns said.
Ušpele, head of the Latvian Health Tourism cluster, stressed that the development of health tourism also helps the development of the medical sector in Latvia.
"It helps to keep a highly skilled, professional workforce in Latvia by paying them competitive salaries. These are not just revenues for private medical institutions, it is also in fact the overall development, strengthening and quality building of health services," Ušpele said.