Dental tourism in Croatia

It is a little-known fact that organised tourism in Europe began in Croatia, on the island of Hvar. Today, Europe’s sunniest island is known as one of the 10 most beautiful islands in the world, but back in 1868, Hvar was known in elite circles in Vienna and Budapest as the Austrian Madeira. And as Croatia enjoys yet another record tourist season in 2017, there is a quiet revolution going on behind the scenes, bringing the country back to its original tourism focus – health.

Croatia – and particularly its capital Zagreb – are quietly establishing themselves as a high quality medical tourism destination, with several factors in the works to quickly accelerate the country’s health tourism potential.

Croatia has never been on the traditional map as a medical tourism destination, and yet if you research a little, the expertise and respect afforded Croatian health professionals is there for all to see. In the last few weeks, for example, a Croatian doctor Niko Mihic MD has been appointed Head of the medical team at Real Madrid, one of the world’s biggest football clubs, Alan Ivković MD became the first surgeon in the world to use nose cells to repair damaged knee cartilage, and cardiac surgeon Tomislav Mihaljevic MD became President and CEO of Cleveland Clinic.

Gone are the days where Croatia’s only medical claim to fame was Goran Višnjić as the sexy doctor in hit show ER, and rapid progress is being made in a number of disciplines, with world class care and expertise on par with the very best on the planet.

Assuming the quality of care is there – and you never want to make compromises ther – what do Croatian medical and dental facilities offer to international patients? Price is an obvious major incentive, as is the opportunity to combine a visit with a holiday. And there are few better places to relax in Europe these days than the hip Adriatic coast and islands which are the jewels of Croatian tourism. A recent visitor from the United States decided to do that, embarking on major dental surgery which included 24 crowns. His journey lasted 12 days, including a luxury stay at the Zagreb Double Tree Hilton, conveniently located in the same building as the Poliklinika Bagatin, which carried out the surgery, after which the polyclinic arranged onward travel and accommodation at the stunning Adriatic coast. The customer’s saving including flight and free luxury holiday? Around US$35,000.

Quality and affordable healthcare tick two important boxes, but a crucial part of the jigsaw is accessibility. Croatian dental tourism is quietly booming in Italy, with busloads of Italians making the short trip to Istria and Rijeka to have their teeth fixed, with one Rijeka clinic now employing an astonishing 120 dentists, but air access to the capital Zagreb is key, and this is one area where the Zagreb medical tourism story gets very interesting.

Croatia’s Adriatic airports of Split, Dubrovnik, Zadar, Rijeka and Pula are enjoying record collective traffic, as the Croatian tourism story expands, but Zagreb is experiencing a different type of boom, and one which is ideal for a cohesive strategy to promote Zagreb’s medical tourism potential.

A sexy 330 million euro new terminal at Zagreb Airport has finally given the city the aviation welcome it deserves, and the new terminal is already attracting some rather interesting clientele. On June 1 2017, Emirates launched a daily flight to Zagreb from Dubai, thereby connecting the world, with the intention to make the route all year. Emirates follows in the path of Qatar Airways, who have recently announced a doubling of flights from their current ten a week. With those two routes alone, Zagreb medical tourism is connected to the profitable Asian and Middle Eastern markets. Korean Air is in discussions for year-round flights.

The news from Europe is also encouraging. While much of the focus of incoming flights is on the coast, European airlines are beginning to listen to the destination which had more tourists overnighting than any other in Croatia last year. Norwegian has decided to extend flights until the end of December from Stockholm and Copenhagen, Monarch is flying through the year from the UK, and others will follow. Slovenia (which already makes up a sizable percentage of Croatia’s foreign medical tourists), Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany are all within easy driving distance for treatment at a fraction of the cost, with comparable treatment quality.

Branding Croatia as a top medical and dental destination requires a cohesive approach, and here too, things are moving in the right direction. Minister of Tourism Gary Cappelli recently announced plans for a 400 million euro investment in health tourism, while – for the first time ever – some 2 million kuna (270,000 euro) has been allocated for the promotion of health tourism.

A little intelligent marketing to tap into Croatia’s tourism offer could increase this niche tourism market immeasurably. Other destinations with music festivals offer special dental tourism packages, for example, and the ability to offer a great medical package to compliment a tourism offer is perhaps the biggest growth potential of all. Advent in Zagreb, an event which barely existed a few years ago, but which has been voted the best Advent in Europe for the last two years, would be an ideal way to enjoy a unique tourism experience while undergoing necessary dental procedures, for a fraction of the cost back home.

Another great potential growth area is teaming up with the state health insurance companies of Western Europe and Scandinavia. With a standard of treatment on par with more developed countries, but with costs considerably lower, the savings state health insurance companies can make working with Croatian medical excellence centres can be considerable, and the quality of care will be just as good or sometimes even better.