While some people travel to Dubai for winter sun or to experience its world-class hospitality and amenities, for an increasing cohort, medical reasons are their main motivation
For decades, Beverly Hills and Harley Street have been synonymous with cosmetic surgery and widely regarded as the world leaders in the field. But since 2014 and the adoption of the Dubai Health Tourism Strategy, which was approved by His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of the Executive Council, Dubai has slowly but steadily established itself as a serious contender. For the second year in a row, the emirate has maintained its position as the top Arab destination for medical tourism, based on the International Medical Tourism Index recently issued by the International Health Care Research Centre (IHRC). And in 2019, Dubai’s number of health tourists grew by four per cent compared to the previous year, with 350,118 individuals spending approximately Dhs727 million on procedures across a number of medical fields. In terms of demographics, 37 per cent of health tourists came from Asian countries, 28 per cent from Arab and Gulf countries, 17 per cent of visitors were from Europe, 10 per cent from the Americas, and the remaining 10 per cent from other parts of the world.
While 2020’s tourism numbers were dramatically impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) expects an accelerated recovery of the medical tourism sector in 2021. In fact, the DHA has recently created the Dubai Health Experience (DHX), a medical tourism agency, which includes an online portal that allows people to search for surgeons and dentists before booking their trip, to aid this. The portal also contains information on health tourism offerings, details about travel visa requirements, and hotel deals and offers in a selection of hotels, adding to the ease of accessibility for prospective medical tourists. The Dubai College of Tourism has also launched an online training programme for the sector, to offer practical guidance to travel professionals. When you add brand new wellness resorts such as The Retreat Palm Dubai MGallery by Sofitel into the mix, you start to see why Dubai has never been more attractive to people who want to take a bespoke approach to medical procedures and overall wellbeing.
With the necessary infrastructure in place, attracting the best and brightest medical professionals and enticing them to relocate to Dubai has also been crucial in growing the sector. Since the beginning of 2021, the DHA’s Health Regulation Sector has received nearly 6,700 new requests for a DHA healthcare professional licence, bringing the Emirate’s total to around 39,000 (Dubai also has the highest number of plastic surgeons per capita, eclipsing Brazil, which used to be the global leader). But with so many clinics already in existence, regulation and setting of standards have been fundamental to Dubai’s success. “Setting up a clinic in Dubai is governed by strict rules and continuous monitoring by the DHA to ensure an excellent standard of practice, so it is not that easy to open a clinic. Even if you are able to open, to maintain the high level of standards to remain open is an arduous task and requires you to be consistently at the top of your profession,” explains Dr Dany Kayle, owner of Dr Kayle Aesthetic Clinic. Having been in practice in the UAE for over 20 years, Dr Kayle has built a reputation with his patients, who travel all over the world for cosmetic surgery, dermatology and skincare, and he welcomes growth in the sector. “It is the ideal city, where everything is built with perfection as the fundamental target. This makes Dubai attractive to the best in each profession, medicine being one of them – and if the best doctors are here, then consequently, patients will follow,” he explains. “Competition is always there, but for us, we view it as being present to push us to excel further.”
It was the quality of life Dubai has to offer that lured Dr Peter Loizou, a consultant ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist, head and neck surgeon and facial plastic surgeon to King’s College Hospital, from London. “I was working, my wife was working; we never saw our daughter and it was a bit of a rat race, in a sense,” he says. “[In Dubai] I have more autonomy and it makes more financial sense as it’s tax-free and surgeons are generally paid more.” Despite arriving in February 2020, just weeks before the pandemic took hold, Dr Loizou says cosmetic surgery is “booming”. He explains, “Here the patient demographic is different and is much younger. People are not only doing it for ageing in their sixties, they’re also doing it in their twenties and thirties. It’s more accepted and there’s less of a taboo around it. People are spending more money and investing more in their image and I think there’s a number of reasons for that, social media being one of them, but keeping up with the Joneses is the other one. Dubai does attract young people who are attracted to the glitz and the glamour. As long as you’re choosing your healthcare provider in a well-informed manner, you’ll get good treatment.”
“The city is easy for tourists to reach and accommodation is readily available,” adds Rebecca Treston, a UK-trained beauty and laser therapist who sees clients travel from all over the world to visit her at the Dubai London Clinic. “Given the cosmopolitan nature of the city, there is plenty on offer, whatever you enjoy doing and with so many nationalities calling Dubai home, it is my experience that everyone feels welcome here. I have had patients from Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, Cyprus, North America and the UK. I also get a lot of patients who are travelling from Australia to Europe and come to see me during their stopover in Dubai.”
Dr Loizou admits that he was initially surprised by the amount of people coming from all over the world to have surgery in Dubai, especially because surgery in Dubai tends to cost 30 to 40 percent more. But he believes Dubai is also attracting patients who want to take a 360 approach to their health. “I thought it would just be people from the local Middle Eastern countries, but we’re seeing a lot from Europe, patients coming London, from Paris, from Switzerland. Some of them might want to see a particular doctor but some of them want to stay for two or three months in Dubai and be able to have the healthcare standards of a Western-trained doctor. We look at them holistically and manage them holistically and I think that’s where we’re valued more. We’re technically robust and ethically transparent. We try and maintain that moral compass, avoiding over-investigation, over-treatment.”
And while doctors who are based in Dubai full time make up a significant portion of the sector, some of the biggest names in cosmetic surgery and dentistry regularly fly into Dubai from the US to see patients, including aesthetic dentist, Dr Michael Apa, who counts royalty, A-list actors and Real Housewives stars as clients. With offices in New York, Los Angeles and Dubai, the dentist typically spends four days per month at the Apa Aesthetic clinic in Umm Suqeim, which opened in 2015. His travel dates are confirmed six months in advance and he typically sees 20 patients per trip. “Fortunately, the demand is there,” he tells MOJEH. “The same pandemic that forced us to temporarily close our doors, actually increased interest in and demand for Smile Makeovers, as people started spending more and more time in front of mirrors and video screens.”
Global recovery from Covid-19 is also a major factor in the future of health tourism across the world, and Dubai’s ability to contain the virus and offer a swift vaccination programme to its population has already started to pay off; the current mood among medical professionals is cautiously optimistic. “As far as Covid-19 is concerned, Dubai is viewed as one of the safest cities in the world at the moment, thanks to the measures and safety precautions in place,” Dr Kayle offers. “During December , there was a vast number of tourists to the emirate, especially from countries which still had lockdowns or social restrictions in place. Today, we still see people coming in and, once they have tested negative for Covid, they are clear to enjoy all that Dubai offers. Naturally, when the pandemic has passed, the number of visitors, including those coming with medical tourism as their main reason, will skyrocket even more.”
Featured image photographed by Nicolas Menu for MOJEH 34