European Medical Tourism

Although pilgrimages have remained central throughout much of Europe’s history, leisure travel, recreational vacations, and medical tourism didn’t really come about until the 16th century when Europeans rediscovered the Roman baths.  Entire communities sprung up around spa towns like Baden Baden, Aachen, and most notably, Bath.  The emergence of Bath or Aquae Sulis (Sulis derived from the water goddess, Sulis Minerva) as a major ” can be attributed to the heavy royal patronage and involvement that the city enjoyed.  With heavy endorsements from members of the ruling class, it wasn’t long before Bath became anointed as a fashionable wellness and recreation playground for the rich and famous.  By the 1720s, aristocrats and gentlemen of leisure from other parts of Europe were swarming to Bath for cleansing and healing, while rubbing elbows with some of the continent’s elite.   

As a result of this attention, Bath received a whole series of technological, financial, and social benefits, not unlike modern medical tourism destinations of today.  For example, Bath was the first city in England to receive a covered sewer system (years before London ever did).  The roads were paved, the streets received a lighting system, and architects scrambled to beautify the facades of the many hotels, pubs, mansions, and restaurants that cropped up thanks to increased tourism and spending.  Probably the most noteworthy medical tourist of this time was Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, French inventor of the essay.  de Montaigne traversed the continent for 9 years in search of a cure for a niggling gall bladder problem.  He is widely believed to be the father of luxury travel, helping to pen one of the earliest documented spa guides for European tourists.   

Medical Tourism in Belgium

England was not the only place in Europe where medical tourism flourished.  In 1326, a sleepy little village in east Belgium gained overnight fame after the discovery of iron-rich hot springs within its boundaries.  Although the Romans knew about the therapeutic waters of Ville d’Eaux (Town of Waters), it developed into a full-fledged health resort only in the 16th century.  Visitors from all over Europe flocked to Ville d’Eaux for relief from gout, rheumatism, and intestinal disorders.  Illustrious patients included Peter the Great and Victor Hugo.  The word “spa,” from the Roman “salude per aqua” (health through waters) was coined around this time, and it applied to any health and wellness resorts that didn’t practice conventional clinical medicine.

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