To your health

Travel professionals know that people travel for myriad reasons: business, pleasure, education, family reunions, weddings, sports, shopping. Sometimes people travel just to get away.

And increasingly we are traveling to exotic destinations for hip replacements, cataract surgery, dental implants or a nip and a tuck.

As we report in our cover story this week, nobody really knows how much Americans spend each year on medically related travel, but it's a very large number, likely in the billions and certainly growing.

And there's likely another B-word in this story: As with many other trends in travel, boomers can be expected to be well represented. Those babies born in the two decades following the end of World War II are not only retiring and spending more on travel, they're spending more to keep themselves fit and healthy.

In other words, the very generation that is most accustomed to using travel agents might now have yet another reason to travel: maintenance.

All of which means the stars could be aligned for agents looking to expand into new and growing niches.

And make no mistake, medical travel has all the markings of a market niche, as the lodging industry discovered long ago when it saw the need for hotels near major medical centers.

Medical travel has spawned an association, a training and certification program and a conference that most recently drew 320 travel agents and a number of exhibitors from destinations that look upon medical travel as a source of visitors and foreign exchange.

As a market niche, however, medical travel is characterized by unique risks and sources of stress. For agents, it brings more than its share of pitfalls, asterisks and warnings, which will be treated at length in the second installment next week.

Suffice it to say that agents who wade into this arena without an adequate appreciation of the role of their lawyer and the medical travel facilitator should have their heads examined.

By all means, stay tuned for Part Two.
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