By Shim Jae-yun
The number of foreign tourists visiting here for medical purposes surpassed 150,000 in 2012, up 27.3 percent from a year earlier.
Chinese medical tourists outnumbered their U.S. counterparts for the first time since 2009, when the nation began a drive to attract patients from overseas.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Korea Health Industry Development Institute revealed data that showed 155,672 foreigners came for medical treatment last year.
The result was based on data submitted by 2,285 registered medical institutes across the country.
"Originally there had been concern over a possible decrease in arrivals of foreign medical tourists due mainly to the lingering financial crisis plus political instability in Northeast Asia. But the global medical tourism market continued to remain robust and we managed to register remarkable growth," the institute said in a press release.
Domestic medical facilities earned 239.1 billion won (approximately $208 million) through treatment, an increase of 32.1 percent from 2010.
Tourism revenue from the foreign patients stood at $34.6 million, the highest since 2006.
Chinese patients increased to 31,472, up 63.7 percent year-on-year, ahead of 30,196 U.S. citizens. Japanese visitors came in third at 18,462 followed by Russians, Mongolians and Vietnamese.
Affected by the steady depreciation of the yen, Japanese patients decreased 17.9 percent. In contrast, those from the Middle East and Central Asia continued to grow.
Saudi Arabian tourists exceeded 1,000 for the first time while those from the United Arab Emirates, with which the government signed contract for exchanging patients last year, soared to 341 from only 54 in 2010.
Apparently boosted by the growing popularity of hallyu (the Korean wave), many foreigners visited noted plastic surgery hospitals such as JK, Wonjin, Oracle and BK.
About 80 percent of the total revenue of JK Plastic Surgery came from Chinese patients, according to a hospital official.
The United Arab Emirates topped the list of medical spending per person with each using 12.37 million won. Those who spent more than 100 million won rose to 83, more than triple the 27 in 2010.
The ministry and the institute are hosting "Medical Korea 2013" at COEX in southern Seoul from Tuesday for a two-day run to display plastic and heart surgery knowhow.