TAIPEI – Beijing entrepreneur Li Jinxun’s first trip to Taiwan was a life-changing experience, but not because of the sightseeing.
The 46-year-old took advantage of a short trip to the island last month to undergo minor cosmetic surgery at a clinic in Kaohsiung city, something he said had made him feel younger and better looking.
“I’m very satisfied. I feel better already,” he says.
Li, who runs a construction firm, is among a new wave of affluent Chinese eager to fit some nips and tucks into their trips to Taiwan, where they can expect to find better medical staff and facilities than back home.
“I think the doctors in Taiwan are more skillful, the clinic is comfortable and the service is more cordial” than on the mainland, he said.
The 30 members of Li’s tour group paid 100,000 Taiwan dollars (S$4,360) on average for a nine-day trip covering sightseeing and cosmetic enhancements, according to the Kaohsiung Aesthetic Medical Tourism Promotion Association.
They opted for simple procedures, such as tooth whitening, botox injections to smooth wrinkles and surgery to remove bags under the eyes or create double eyelids – a popular procedure in Asia aimed at making the eyes look bigger.
“The demand from China is much higher than what we’d expected, and the visitors just keep coming in,” said Chen Chun-ting, secretary-general of the association, which plans to host three 100-member mainland groups in January.
“As China gets richer, more and more people are paying attention to their appearance and are willing to spend money in this area,” Chen said.
The growing interest in medical tourism coincides with an influx of Chinese visitors to the island, under more relaxed rules introduced since Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008.
More than 480,000 tourists arrived from the mainland from January to November 2009, nearly five times as many as during the same period in 2008, according to government figures.
Industry watchers are upbeat that Taiwan, which has been promoting medical tourism for two years, can hold its own against competitors in the region such as Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand.
The prospect is greatly boosted by Taiwan’s advantage in attracting Chinese clients. Their common language, the island’s geographical proximity and competitive pricing all help, they said.
“We had a late start compared with our competitors, but we’re confident we can achieve as much. There is a lot of room for growth,” said Shih Chung-liang, head of the bureau of medical affairs at the island’s health department.
In 2008, around 5,000 visitors came to Taiwan for health check-ups and cosmetic surgery, creating an industry worth 40 to 50 million US dollars, according to Shih.
“Our main target has been mainland Chinese since cross-Strait ties improved,” he said. Shih said the island’s medical tourism market was expected to grow by 20 percent annually.
Private sector forecasts are even higher, with one group of 30 hospitals expecting its business to more than double to 95 million US dollars this year, according to its chief executive officer Wu Ming-yen.
The potential clientele from the mainland is huge, as there are now around 100 million Chinese who can boast spending power equivalent to the average consumer in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Wu said.
“China is picking up in surgical skills as its economy rises but it still trails behind Taiwan in services. Unlike China, most hospitals in Taiwan are private and very competitive,” he said.
Li, the 46-year-old Beijinger, is already planning his second visit to Taiwan, this time bringing along his wife.
“As we get older we need to look after ourselves more carefully. I want to have my teeth whitened and get a face-lift for my wife.”