The practice of travelling for health and medical reasons has a long history. Even the ancient civilizations recognized the therapeutic effects of mineral thermal springs and sacred temple baths. For example, the Sumerians constructed health complexes around hot springs more than four thousand years ago, which included temples with flowing pools.
Ancient Romans built resorts with thermal health spas, and therapeutic temples thrived during the Greek domain. Ancient Greeks were known for their travels to the sanctuary of the healing god, Asklepios, believed to reveal remedies for different ailments in the dreams. This sanctuary was in fact a small territory in the Saronic Gulf named Epidauria – today considered as the birthplace of medical tourism as we know it.
It was the Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth century that are responsible for the development of a modern pleasure resort concept. Seaside resorts in the United Kingdom (such as Blackpool or Margate) were built due to the belief of the British elite that there are real curative powers in sea waters and sea air. Very quickly England saw a boom of different spa towns and sanatoriums accommodating those who could afford to make the trip.
Spas and mineral water were used to cure illnesses such as various skin infections, poor digestion and rheumatism. In mainland Europe, Switzerland offered a plethora of towns grown up around mineral springs (St. Moritz, Lausanne, Interlaken and Baden). People also flocked to Austria (Vienna), Hungary (Budapest) and Germany (Baden-Baden and Wiesbaden).
The formation of the railways increased the flow of people to more remote coastal and seaside resorts, providing in turn a unique and escapist environment from urbanization, as well as the opportunity to practice what was viewed as a healthy pleasure of sun-seeking.
The discovery of the New World revealed new destinations for medical travelers from Europe. Dutch and English colonists assembled log cabins alongside mineral springs in the 1600s. During this period, Native Americans in the New World were notably adept in the healing arts.
In the United States and Canada, mineral springs were used for the development of spa tourism, around which the first national parks have been established. The physical morphology of springs can result in distinctive natural landscapes that also helped draw visitors from all corners of the world (e.g. Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, USA).
In the nineteenth century, wealthy tuberculosis sufferers from Europe often travelled to (and lived) in south-west United States, seeking different climate conditions in order to improve their health. That kind of behavior arguably predates modern-day lifestyle retirement and second home migration for similar reasons of extending quality of life.
However, traveling with the intention of receiving treatments, such as cosmetic surgery, dental care and other complex procedures is a relatively new phenomenon, having begun only several decades ago throughout the world.
Asia has a history of medical tourism as well. Japan’s affluence of natural mineral springs (also known as onsen) has represented a favorite health retreat for centuries, and they are also a central feature of Japanese tourism today. These springs are known to have healing powers derived from its mineral content. Different warrior clans also took notice of these springs and used them to heal wounds, alleviate pain and recuperate from their battles.
Yoga and Ayurvedic medicine grew in popularity five thousand years ago in India, wherein constant streams of medical travelers and spiritual students flocked to pursue the benefits of these alternative-healing methods. India procured reputation as the center of Eastern spiritual, cultural and medicinal progress when Buddhism came along 2500 years later. Today it is one of the most popular destinations for medical tourists.