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Colombia 2016 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | FOCUS: HEALTH TOURISM

Offering medical services on par with hospitals in Europe and the US, Colombia's doctors are welcoming an increasingly international roster of patients.

Colombia's health tourism industry has grown rapidly in recent years. The stable political situation and high-quality health institutions attract thousands of patients looking for cheaper prices without compromising on quality. In 2015, nearly 41,000 foreign patients received medical assistance in Colombia, injecting $145 million into the economy, according to the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism.

The Colombian government has realized the benefits that a health tourism sector can bring to the economy, and is now providing the sector with the support it needs to become a global leader in the industry. As a result, Colombia now plans to exempt tourists from taxes when they come to the country on a contracted health package.

During his speech at the country's largest tourism fair, ANATO, in February 2016, President Juan Manuel Santos launched this incentive for foreign tourists in order to eliminate the 16% sales tax for medical tourism-related services. “There is already a decree prepared exempting those who come from abroad and those who buy tour packages associated with health tourism, tourism events, or cultural activities," he announced.

Executive President of the Organizacion Sanitas International, Ignacio Salinas, underscored that Colombia need not “envy" European countries. “Human resources in this sector is one factor that differentiates Colombia from other nations. People are extremely friendly and highly qualified here," he explained.

Now, Colombian cities are competing with each other to offer the best healthcare for foreigners. “Many people come from Spain and the US due to fairer prices; for example, a pair of breast implants in Miami will cost $1,200, whereas in Colombia, it is less than $400," explained CEO of Gilmedica, Luis Fernando Gil. Gil added that Cali has the largest medical tourism industry in Colombia, closely followed by Medellín, but also believes other cities such as Bucaramanga, Barranquilla, and Cartagena are competing for these patients as well.
The tremendous demand for these services has spurred investment in private clinics. There is a demand to attract the best physicians and the best medical equipment. Consequently, the hospitality sector has become an important ally for this sector and has consequently witnessed demand for its services increasing during the patients' recovery period.

One such example is the International Hospital of Colombia, a $400 million project backed by the Cardiovascular Foundation of Colombia in Bucaramanga. The hospital is the largest private hospital in Latin America. “The facility has 1,200 beds with specialties, including an institute for orthopedics, neurology, and oncology, among others," claimed President and CEO Victor Raul Castillo.

“We expect to attract people from the US and Canada because this hospital is going to be an American hospital in Colombia to export medical services."

The treatment that international tourists receive is a complete package, covering the hospitals and the hotel as well as restaurants, transport, caregivers in the postoperative period, and other services. Patients are given the option to stay longer in the country, presenting the possibility for broader contributions to the domestic economy.

As a result of the success that the health sector has experienced during the last decade, the Ministry of Commerce has impressive long-term expectations. Its vision is that in 2032 Colombia will be recognized as one of the world leaders in health tourism, generating billions in revenue for Colombia.