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Croatia joins list of countries offering medical tourism

Giuseppe Costanzo has become a regular visitor to this tiny beach resort on Croatia's coast. But unlike many tourists, the 63-year-old Italian has come to take a seat in a dental clinic rather than claim a spot on the sand.

The Italian, a retired postal worker from Latina, near Rome, says he has come to have his teeth implants done by a Croatian dentist. „It's almost half the amount that I would have to pay in Italy,” he says. Costanzo is among the growing number of foreigners coming to Croatia for dental surgery. Most are, like him, from Italy, but others come from Germany, Sweden, Norway and more recently Britain, for treatment on Croatia's glittering shore. Goran Nedoklan, a local dental technician with a nose for business, calls himself one of Croatia's „dental tourism” pioneers.

Looking to boost his business after Croatia's war for independence in the 1990s, he turned to Europe, initially placing advertisements in Italian and German newspapers for his services. He later set up a website before opening a liaison office in Italy in 2005. His clinic now employs two dentists, two surgeons, an orthodontist and five dental technicians, and has a sophisticated laboratory. The initiative took off thanks in part to a good location. Vodice is one of Croatia's favorite coastal tourism destinations thus offering the chance for clients to get their teeth down and top up on their tans. Transport links are good and about to get better with low-cost airlines starting to fly into nearby Zadar. Nedoklan says nearly half of his patients now come from abroad. „It's worth coming here even to put in a single crown and spend a few days in a nice little coastal town,” he says.

Whereas a porcelain tooth crown can cost about £500-600 (€730-880) in Britain, Nedoklan charges just €200. As well as fixing patients' teeth, Nedoklan arranges travel, accommodation and, if desired, excursions to nearby national parks including the pristine Kornati islands. And his service doesn't stop when the patient goes home. The Croatian has partnerships with clinics in Italy, Germany and England for any follow up care. Others have spotted the potential as the town has just opened another dental centre catering to dental tourists.

Croatian tourist officials say Croatia has great potential in health tourism. A growing sector of the market they are keen to develop to prolong the July-August high season when most of the eight million annual tourists - nearly twice Croatia's population - visit. „It's great for both Vodice and the whole region to have two dental centres,” Anita Franin, head of Vodice tourist board, told AFP. „It's an important breakthrough in our offer to tourists previously focusing on the sea and sun,” she stressed. But Croatia is joining a growing list of former eastern bloc countries offering cheap medical and dental care such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania. Not to mention existing markets in Cuba, India and elsewhere in Asia.

There are no official figures on the number of foreigners coming to Croatia for dental services. However, it is believed most of them visit the northern Adriatic coastal port of Rijeka, just over the border from Italy, and the nearby upmarket resort of Opatija. The area has 262 dentists, nearly a quarter of 1,300 being registered in Croatia. Apart from the growth in foreigners coming for dental work, those seeking plastic surgery are also on the increase.

Mario Zambelli, head of a Croatian association of plastic surgeons, says the number of those undergoing plastic surgery in Croatia „has grown significantly” in recent years, though he doesn't have exact figures. Again, the pull factor is price. „Compared with Italy, prices are on average 50% lower,” said Zoran Zgaljardic, a facial plastic surgeon in Opatija, who says around a third of his patients are Italians. Operations most in demand are rhinoplasty or nose jobs, liposuction, breast implants, and a growing number of men seeking face-lifts. „Breast implants are around €3,000 (here) while in Italy you'd pay between 6,000 and €8,000,” says Zgaljardic. However, Zgaljardic says the most important decision to make when considering plastic surgery is not the price, but the level of trust between clients and doctors. (france24.com)