Amid the huge number of medical tourists who visited India last year, the majority of 54% were from Bangladesh, according to data released by India's Ministry of Tourism.
Meanwhile, only 9% of medical tourists of India were from Iraq, 8% from Afghanistan, 6% from the Maldives, and 4.5% from a group of African nations, reports The Times of India.
According to data from India's Ministry of Tourism, Bangladesh accounted for only 23.6 percent of medical tourists back in 2009, significantly lower than Maldives' then highest of 57.5%.
That number drastically changed in 2019 when medical tourists who visited India from Bangladesh rose to 57.5% and the Maldives dropped to 7.3%.
Dr Devi Shetty, a member of the National Medical and Wellness Tourism Promotion Board said the majority of these patients come to India for difficult cardiac procedures and cancer treatment as India is a low-cost healthcare destination with high-quality hospitals.
Dr Shetty believes that, in addition to excellent medical care, what draws Bangladeshis to India are parallels in food, language, inexpensive treatment, and cultural familiarity.
The government of India's decision to extend e-medical visas to 166 countries has helped needy patients from abroad reach out to Indian hospitals but numbers have gone down since the virus struck,.
Dr Shetty predicted that it would take months for the industry to recover.
Besides Bangladesh and Maldives, Afghans used to account for 10.7 percent of international patients in India in 2009, which then grew to 14.3 percent in 2016 before declining to 4.7 percent in 2019.
According to stakeholders, direct flight connection is a major determinant of location.
Dr Manish Mattoo, vice-president of Fortis Healthcare, stated, "While Delhi and Mumbai receive the majority of their patients from West Asia and Bangladesh, Chennai receives patients from the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Mauritius."
"The majority of medical visitors to Bengaluru come from African countries, Bangladesh, and West Asia," he added.
Dr Mattoo said in terms of cost, foreign patients pay a 20% premium compared to Indian patients. This comes with an ecosystem that's set up to take care of them.
"Foreign patients get complete support from hospitals right from their arrival at the airport to lodging, treatment, and even cuisines of their choice, besides translators to help them throughout," said Dr Mattoo.
Adding that the kind of treatment foreign patients look for has changed with time, Dr Mattoo said, "In 2016-17, there was a huge inflow of patients from Iraq and Yemen, mostly men injured in war By late 2018, such cases plateaued. In 2019, most patients were seeking liver transplant and brain surgeries."
In February this year, a special chartered aircraft flew in 21 patients from Myanmar to Apollo Hospitals, Delhi. "Most of them were seeking kidney and liver transplants," said Dr Harinder Sidhu, vice-president, Apollo Hospitals. "They were accompanied by donors and caretakers. Medical tourism has not completely stopped even during the pandemic."
Dr Sidhu revealed several Bangladeshis traveled by bus to Kolkata in October 2020 and were later brought to Chennai for treatment. Post-Covid, many hospitals catering to foreign patients through dedicated international desks have been getting enquiries, but travel restrictions are a stumbling block.
Dr Devi Shetty said it would take at least 3-6 months for medical tourism to hit its stride. "For flights to resume, for the embassies to issue medical visas, it would take time. Currently visas are being issued only in case of emergencies. For medical tourism to resume, the pandemic situation in those countries and in India matters," he said.