San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Medical Tourism

Is Guanacaste medical tourism's next hot spot?

Medical tourism companies, doctors, hotel managers and tour operators piled into the Hotel Ramada Plaza Herradura for two days, touting Latin America’s medical tourism benefits from the industry’s most popular site, San José. 

But on Wednesday, the last day of Costa Rica’s second-annual Medical Travel Summit, organizers opted for a change of scenery. Carloads of attendees headed to the northwestern province of Guanacaste on Tuesday night. There they received a four-hour tour of the Papagayo Peninsula, including Marina Papagayo, an elegant Four Seasons Resort and also a newly constructed CIMA hospital.

“This is an opportunity to involve different areas of Costa Rica in medical tourism,” said Massimo Manzi, executive director of PROMED, a company that promotes medical procedures in Costa Rica. “Until now, the [Central Valley] is just having the benefits of medical tourism because this is where the hospitals are.”

The excursion was an opportunity to promote a growing Guanacaste, which has new medical facilities, an expanding airport and a sprawling 900-hectare retirement community under development, called Sun Ranch. Even as the tour took place, a new luxury hotel, Sol Meliá Paradisus Resort, announced plans to open in Guanacaste in 2013.

The trip helped flaunt Guanacaste’s glossy future to medical tourism leaders. It also showed potential tourists what Guanacaste is not – San José.

Costa Rica’s grubby capital remains the leader for medical tourism in Central America, with its state-of-the-art hospitals and U.S.-trained doctors. But Guanacaste hopes for a share of that market. And for an obvious reason, industry insiders think it’s possible.

“Let’s face it,” said Jerad Portner, marketing director for Sun Ranch. “If you have the choice to go to San José or the choice to do the same exact work by the same top professionals and you’re a 15-minute drive the from the beach, I think it’s a pretty easy decision to make.”

Guanacaste’s medical tourism push highlighted the three-day Medical Travel Summit. The congress hosted more than 40 international speakers, 150 companies and nine countries from North and South America and Thailand.

Dental clinics outnumbered the rest of the booths at the conference. Medical suppliers, plastic surgeons and bariatric doctors also promoted why those looking for cheap, quality medical service should head to Latin America.

In 2009, 30,000 medical tourists visited Costa Rica. Almost all of them received their treatment in San José, and patients recovered through vacation packages that took them around the country. The medical tourism industry brings in $60 million annually to Costa Rica, and the projected figure for 2011 is a hefty $100 million, according to PROMED.

 If Guanacaste can become the next medical tourism hotspot, the number will continue to rise. The key to the region’s growth will be a cutting-edge $125 million CIMA hospital opening in the fourth quarter of 2011 (TT, Jan. 29, 2010).

CIMA hospitals are international medical facilities built in underserved parts of the world. Both locals and foreigners are treated at these hospitals. Approximately, 5,000 medical tourists were treated at the San José branch in 2009, Manzi said.

Joseph Barcie, president of CIMA Centralized Services, headquartered in Dallas, Texas, in the U.S., emphasized that a contemporary hospital can help develop a city. He pointed to the current CIMA building in San José, for example. 

“When CIMA San José was built, around that entire hospital was nothing but fields and grass,” Barcie said. “Now, 12 years later, Escazú is a hub and they’re still building.”

He imagines the same type of growth in Guanacaste in the next decade. Nearby, in the province’s capital city of Liberia, the Daniel Oduber Airport is adding a new terminal. The airport continues to add direct flights to the United States, making it easier to fly in and arrive at a hospital that’s less than an hour from the beach. Other hospitals also have tentative plans to build in Guanacaste.

One hospital already settled in Liberia is adding a new wing that will serve medical tourists. Ronald Guerrero, administrative manager of Hospital San Rafael Arcángel, said the hospital takes in 90 percent Costa Rican patients. However, the hospital is equipping itself for the influx of tourist that could be coming to the region.

Guerrero has lived in the area for 15 years, and he deemed Guanacaste ready to make a big leap in the tourism market.

“[I lived in Guanacaste] when it was a small place,” Guerrero said. “Well, now it’s a little bit more people, more crowded, more noisy and everything but still a much better place to live and to recover from surgery than San José. A much better place.”

Other businesses are banking on that attitude. The massive Sun Ranch community will include a $35-$40 million Hospital Clínica Bíblica, a $12-$15 million resort and a professionally designed golf course on its property. Portner said Grupo Do It, Sun Ranch’s development company, has not yet begun heavily promoting the property, as they’re waiting for more positive signs from the real estate market. Yet the land has piqued the interest of doctors.

Portner stood in front of an elaborate model of the Sun Ranch property in the Hotel Ramada exhibition room, as he explained that San José doctors have called him to ask about buying office space there. The doctors intend to semi-retire there – practicing medicine part-time and fishing and golfing the rest of the week. If CIMA turns Guanacaste into a medical tourism hub, then dentists and other physicians could see the coastal province as a place to open offices.

Manzi said next year’s Medical Tourism Summit could highlight opportunities in La Fortuna, Manuel Antonio-Quepos and Jacó. But the consensus this year is the next great destination for medical tourism will be in Costa Rica’s northwest.

Said Manzi: “Guanacaste is absolutely ready to be a leader in medical tourism.”

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