We are all well-aware of the challenges brought up by Covid-19, which forced us indeed to look for disruptive solutions. The same applies to health travel and tourism. Looking back to January 2020, the year started full of glory and full of hope about achieving courageous business plans and breaking new tourism records. Instead, we faced, and we are still facing the most challenging year in our lives. When discussing the impact of Covid-19 on health travel, it is vital to take a glimpse into a broader context. Like ever before, health tourism depends on external factors such as travel restrictions. The new buzz words include “social distancing” and “new normal,” while the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) announced an unprecedented decrease in international arrivals of 70% world-wide. It brought several global initiatives for tourism recovery led by the UNWTO that recently made clear that the main barriers for tourism recovery include travel restrictions, slow virus containment, slow consumer confidence, and a lack of harmonized protocols among countries. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) developed already in May a series of so-called “Safe Travels” protocols for hotels, agencies, shopping, airports, attractions, events, car rentals, insurance, and other stakeholders. However, there is no similar protocol for health travel yet.
Euromonitor International has just published an overview of the “Great Reset,” implying the need to innovate, digitalize and embrace sustainability: innovation is becoming the key after the pandemic, while survival strategies comprise looking after new source markets, new consumer segments, new business models and alternative revenue streams. It seems that Europe is already emphasizing digital green transformation and circular economy (Nordic countries), regenerative tourism (Flanders, Amsterdam), and immersion in nature for mental well-being (Ireland, Scotland). The European Travel Commission (ETC) launched a handbook on Covid-19 recovery strategies for national tourism organizations. It shows the changes in consumer travel preferences in 2020: the focus is now on well- being and environment, open spaces, fresh air, private accommodation, active holidays, and domestic travel. Recommendations turn around developing a news sustainable ecosystem and partnerships across the tourism sector, academia, tech companies, and experts in sustainable business practices.
Health travel and tourism in Europe has a significant role, amounting to approx. EUR 47 billion (European Parliament, 2017). On top of that, more than 50% of European citizens are willing to travel across the EU to get better quality of medical care (Statista, 2018). The opportunity lies in the better application of the EU Cross-border Healthcare Directive. Nowadays, 70% of patients’ flow occurs in neighboring states, mainly through bilateral agreements that avail health care. The New Normal speeded up the upcoming changes and brought new paradigms in health travel and tourism: people look for prevention instead of only treating sickness; well-being is becoming open to all instead of being an exclusive service available to a few; personalized health care replaces the “one-size-fits-all” approach; treatments and diagnostics are less invasive compared to former invasive ones; health care is no more providers-centered but patient-centered; and, finally, digitalization seems to be “a must-have” and not just an option. On top of that, we are even greeting each other with “Stay Healthy.”