Penang airport struggles to process passengers as medical tourism booms in state

LaShila 7 / Twitter / Pavel Baybakov / Facebook

Arriving passengers at Penang International Airport (PEN) endured long queues, with some reportedly waiting up to four hours to clear immigration on December 2, 2023.

Disgruntled passengers took to social media to express their discontent and post photos of the airport teeming with passengers who are standing almost shoulder to shoulder. 

Some passengers told Malaysian media outlets that there were queues snaking all the way to the toilet, which were already filthy due to overuse.

Only five out of 12 immigration counters were operational that day according to reports. With no airport staff to guide the passengers, queues reached all the way to the second level of the airport.

Image: Lee Beng Poh / PenangToday Community Facebook group

Although the airport managed to get things under control the following day, complaints of disorganized and long queues started in mid-November, with passenger crowds and queues at their worst on December 2.

On November 16, 2023, a frustrated passenger took to Facebook to share a similar issue, stating that only four immigration counters were open out of 12.

Penang arrivals up more than 100% due to health tourism

A report by Malaysian media outlet The Star said that based on year-on-year arrival statistics provided by PEN airport, there was a 138% increase in tourist arrivals when compared to the corresponding period in 2022.

The report said that healthcare/medical travel has attracted more than a million tourists in the first six months of 2023 alone, with the majority coming from Indonesia and China. 

Malaysia is known for its competitive health services, but Penang in particular generates 40 to 50% of the country’s medical tourism income.

The Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council said rising healthcare costs in neighboring countries like Singapore and Thailand helped strengthen Malaysia’s position as a healthcare destination, because it is able to offer more affordable prices.

Why is Penang known for medical tourism?

Most Penang hospitals are also known to be ‘medical tourist-friendly’, offering special stay packages, and are situated close to malls and tourist spots.

Medical tourists who go to Malaysia often seek orthopedic, gastroenterology, general health screening and cardiology treatments.

Malaysia is also known for alternative approaches to healing such as traditional bone setting or chiropractic therapy. 

One of the country’s most respected ‘masters’ in chiropractic therapy is Chris Leong, who has a cult following on social media, and is known to randomly treat patients at airports and even during flights.

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