Seoul wants to promote health tourism, but opposition grows in Jeju
by Guido Alberto Casanova

A public funding programme aimed at clinics wishing to expand their reception of patients from abroad has been launched. But the local population fears that the expansion of private for-profit businesses on the island, aimed in particular at Chinese patients, could damage public health and inflate the cost of health treatments.

Seoul (AsiaNews) - The South Korean Ministry of Health has selected a number of locations in the country for the allocation of funds that should boost so-called health tourism. South Korea is not yet among the most popular destinations globally, but a government initiative aims to support an industry with strong growth potential, especially in Asia.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic and the efficient management of the virus, South Korea has tried to present itself to the world as a country with a quality and affordable healthcare service. Thus, starting last year, the government launched a public funding programme aimed at clinics wishing to expand their reception of patients from abroad.

This year's winners of the ministerial announcement include the subtropical island of Jeju, a special autonomous province that submitted a project in which medical treatments are assisted by Jeju's natural environment.

"We are currently developing the island's unique health and wellness model," said Kang Dong-won, head of the provincial health bureau, which supports the role of the health industry as an engine for the local economy.

The ministerial funds, worth 200 million won (over €140,000), will be disbursed to expand the capacity of Jeju's healthcare facilities to attract and receive foreign tourists. The provincial government said it wants to encourage a rapprochement between the main clinics on the island and tourist agencies, so as to better publicise the healthcare treatments offered by local facilities among possible foreign patients.

The project, however, may not be so easy to realise. Over the past few years, opposition has grown in Jeju from the local population, which has shown a certain impatience with private clinics.

Various activist groups and citizens have repeatedly expressed their opposition to the expansion of private for-profit clinics on the island, fearing that the increased competition from these hospitals could damage public healthcare and inflate the cost of healthcare treatments.

The case of Greenland International Hospital, in Jeju, is an example of the difficulties the government may face in promoting health tourism. In 2015, Greenland Group, a Shanghai-based real estate group, had started the construction of the healthcare facility on the island to take advantage of the increasing flow of Chinese medical tourists.

In 2018, however, when the licence was granted, the Jeju authorities wavered in the face of citizens' fears and granted it on the condition that only foreign and not South Korean patients would be treated at the clinic.

A long legal battle ensued, in which the Chinese group prevailed last year. But by then the damage had been done and in the meantime Greenland had liquidated most of its stake in the company that was to operate the hospital.

In South Korea, almost all hospitals are private, but by law they are not allowed to register any profit, which must instead be reinvested in the facility itself. Jeju, however, is one of the very few places where foreign investors are allowed to open a clinic and pocket the profits from the healthcare treatments offered to patients.