Full disclosure – I love everything about the Crikvenica International Health Tourism (CIHT) conference, and I rate it as the very best of all the (many) conferences I have attended in Croatia over the years.
Medical tourism is not a niche I would normally associate myself with. In fact, until the dynamo that is Ognjen Bagatin of the award-winning Bagatin Clinic introduced me to the sector a few years ago, I didn’t even realise that Croatia had a quality medical tourism sector.
And then I went to CIHT 2018, met this lady, and life was never the same again.
There were tears of admiration and of envy from the largely Croatian health tourism sector audience as Sherene Azli, the charismatic CEO of the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council, explained in detail how Malaysia had taken its medical tourism industry from nothing to about $2 billion dollars through a hugely successful public/private partnership and a hashtag that would never catch on in Croatia sadly – #TogetherWeWin. You can read Lessons from Malaysia in Croatia: MHTC CEO Sherene Azli on Health Tourism.
Nine months later, sporting a Varteks suit, I found myself in the rather surreal position of accepting an award in Kuala Lumpur at the inaugural Medical Travel Media Awards in August 2019.
The thing was, however, that Sherene was far from being the only world-class speaker on the stage in Crikvenica. At CIHT 2018, I also interviewed Keith Pollard, Editor of International Medical Travel Journal, as well as branding experr, Ilan Geva from the USA – Croatian Medical Tourism: Great Potential, Collaborate or Die Says Ilan Geva.
I had no idea that the topic of medical tourism could be so interesting, or full of so much (yes, the P word again in Croatian tourism) potential. I was hooked.
Over the years, CIHT has consistently thought out of the box, bringing different viewpoints, not all of which are focused 100% on health tourism. Global tourism expert Doug Lansky was the star of the show two years ago with Lessons for Croatia: Successful Tourism by Doug Lansky at CIHT 2019.
Added to the fact that CIHT is superbly run and has a great social aspect to it, and little wonder that it is the first conference I look out for. October 6-7, 2022 are already in my diary for CIHT 2022.
And this year’s event brought so much brain food, and the timing of so of its presentations was timely indeed. I could go on for hours but here are some key points which tie in to developing Croatia’s untapped opportunities.
One of the great initiatives in the medical tourism sector has been the Medical Tourism Task Force, as part of the American Croatian Professionals Association (ACAP). Cleveland has a very strong Croatian connection with medical tourism, most notably in the form of the CEO of Cleveland Clinic, Tomislav Mihaljevic. Ognjen Bagatin has done a phenomenal job over the years strengthening that relationship, and ACAP’s Jeana Havidich flew in to address the conference to update the conference on progress being made to attract the target audience od 1.2 million Croatian diaspora.
Jeana was followed by our favourite Dutch wannabe tomato-grower, Jan de Jong. Best-known for his successful push to bring a digital nomad visa to Croatia, Jan gave a great presentation on Croatia, the Land of Opportunity and his version of Living the Croatian Dream. Jan has really developed as a public speaker since I first heard him at Business Cafe International in Zagreb a couple of years ago. And his positivity is infectious, and it is slowly dripfeeding into the Croatian mindset of many local people.
And then I made my first big connection of the day – a wonderful opportunity.
Until now, the focus has been on trying to attract foreign patients to come to Croatia for treatment. But now there is another opportunity, far bigger than the 1.2 million diaspora in the USA – the remote worker.
Due to the efforts of Jan and many others, Croatia is starting to attract a significant number of digital nomads and remote workers. We are at the tip of the iceberg and the beginning of a journey, and this – at least in my opinion – is the biggest opportunity Croatia has to develop its tourism sustainably.
The big difference between the diaspora and remote worker in terms of targeting is that the remote worker is already coming here for an extended period. They are choosing Croatia for the lifestyle, excellent WiFi, safety, nature, authentic experiences, food and drink, accessibility and affordability. The majority do not even know that Croatia has a world-class medical tourism industry. Imagine if they were educated on the potential (an overview here) – one more great reason to choose Croatia for the next office.
I was beginning to think that CIHT organisers Alfred and Vladimir were organising presentations just for me. One of the initiatives I am involved with is to restart winter tourism on the Croatian coast. Did you know, for example, about the following number of international routes connected with winter flights: Dubrovnik (2), Split (6 – 2 different countries), Banja Luka (14 – 8 countries), Nis, Serbia (12 – 7 countries), Thessaloniki (80 – 23 countries), Bari (76 – 18 countries), Alicante (167 – 24 countries), Venice (75 – 26 countries). Read more in Wow! Comparing Split, Dubrovnik Winter Flights to ExYu, Mediterranean Competition.
Velimir Sonje, CEO of Croatian startup ETF Airways (which flies all over Europe but not in Croatia) gave a great presentation on Croatian Tourism and Airlines: a Missed Opportunity. Lots of thought-provoking stuff that I will be exploring in greater detail with Velimir over a beer in Zagreb soon.
Next up was another hero of mine, achieving incredible things and promoting both Croatia and its healthy lifestyle internationally. Vladomir Miholjevic has done so much to put Croatia on the global cycling map, from bringing his Bahrain Merida (as it was then) to Hvar for winter training for several years, to organising the fabulous CRO Race, an event that was beamed all over the globe.
And then I realised what it is that I love about CIHT – it is a place where Croatian world-class excellence is celebrated by real people who are doing not talking.
And connecting, to make a better eco-system for all.
And then came the presentation that blew my mind, as Maria Antonietta Princivalle from BookingsMed gave a fascinating overview of the outbound Italian medical tourism market. According to Maria, Croatia has an excellent medical tourism reputation in Italy, both in terms of price and quality. And the Italian market brings significant revenue to the clinics of Istria and Kvarner.
But how much of an opportunity is Croatia missing out on with this captive market – great reputation, proximity, no language barrier?
Some 550,000 Italian patients go abroad each year for thermal cures, some driving as far as Prague.
Some 350,000 cross the border each year for aesthetic treatment, as far away as Thailand and Brazil.
Back to Croatian excellence. Next up, Branimir Blajic, who gave a fascinating presentation of the case study of Sveti Martin in promoting local producers and their local products.
This is SUCH an obvious one for Croatia to develop, with its rich network of small producers of high-quality produce. Blajic showed how it could be done, and TCN will soon be reporting from Medjimurje on this excellent initiative, as well as exploring how we can expand its scope.
And no CIHT conference would be complete without the visionary legendica, Vlasta Brozicevic of Teme Selce, who gave an inspiring presentation entitled Game Changer in Health and Wellbeing Holistic Solutions.
It is a sign of the growing relevance and excellence of CIHT that medical tourism professionals of the quality of Mario Skugor, of Cleveland Clinic, flew in for the conference. It was great to see full two-day attendance from the Zagreb Tourist Board and the medical tourism department of the Ministry of Tourism, as well as the Ministry of Health. It was, however, a little disappointing (although not surprising) that the Kingdom of Accidental Tourism, aka the Croatian National Tourist Board, could not make the 2-hour journey from Zagreb when others had made such an effort, only joining remotely.
An outstanding two days, with great networking and new opportunities. There seems to be a renewed momentum within the Croatian medical tourism industry. And as one can see from the above, the opportunities are plentiful.
CIHT 2022 will take place on October 6-7, 2022 – it promises to be quite a 10-year party.
To learn more about the Kvarner Health Tourism Cluster and its excellent work, visit the official website.