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This issue of Desert Companion includes a travel guide to mountain towns — where to stay, eat, and play, and what to see in five high-elevation, low-stress destinations within a day’s drive (or less!) of Las Vegas. Bonus: an adapted excerpt from the forthcoming book Chasing Giants: In Search of the World’s Largest Freshwater Fish.View as a flipbook or download the PDF on Issuu >>

Patiently Waiting

A five cent stamp with Las Vegas on it, an pill bottle, red cross, stethoscope, and syringe
Alyssa Noji

Las Vegas was supposed to be building a healthcare travel industry. How’s that going?

Las Vegas civic leaders have long dreamed of a thriving medical tourism industry. In 2011, the national Medical Tourism Association launched its local initiative (and accompanying tourist guide), aiming to establish the city as a medical tourism destination for both domestic and international travelers. In 2014, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), medical tourism advocacy group Las Vegas HEALS (Health, Education, Advocacy, and Leadership of Southern Nevada), UNLV, and the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance partnered on a Regional Strategic Plan for Medical and Wellness Tourism. According to Doug Geinzer, HEALS’ former CEO, the plan included the “three legs to the stool” of medical tourism: health and wellness conventions, spa and wellness tourism, and medical tourism.

During the height of this excitement, in August 2012, current Desert Companion Editor Heidi Kyser wrote about the nascent medical tourism industry. Advocates and medical professionals told her optimistically how the next 10 years would bring success for the medical tourism market here.

Has it? We circled back to take the industry’s pulse. Here’s an update from those three sectors of the business.

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Meetings and Conventions  

Unsurprisingly, this category of medical tourism has seen the strongest growth in Las Vegas over the past decade. After bottoming out during COVID, the convention industry has rebounded spectacularly, with the LVCVA estimating five million people attended a convention in 2022, up 126 percent from the year before and only 1.5 million visitors away from pre-pandemic attendance highs. “On the medical conferences, I’d say we probably hit 10 out of 10,” Geinzer says. “That was by far the biggest area of success.”

Spa and Wellness Tourism

Geinzer considers this aspect of medical tourism another overall win for Las Vegas: “On wellness tourism, I’d say probably eight out of 10.” The pandemic boosted outdoor recreation activities such as hiking, biking, and rock climbing at local national parks (all of which fall under the wellness category). “We had a lot of folks that moved from colder areas of the country to Las Vegas to work remotely,” Geinzer says. He adds that the ability to get more sun and excercise may increase these transplants’ self-care regimes.

Can Southern Nevada become a medical tourism destination? Judging by these specialists attracting patients from far and wide, we’re on our way. In the post-recession search for a more diverse — and thus secure — local economy, Las Vegas leaders have set their sights on medical tourism.

Medical Tourism

Building a robust medical tourism industry in Vegas has proven to be a bit trickier, though why is hard to pin down. The LVCVA and its former (as well as only) medical and wellness tourism manager, Cheryl Smith, declined multiple requests for an interview. “Our healthcare infrastructure didn’t support it as much as we thought it would,” Geinzer says.

Though Vegas hasn’t hit all the medical tourism milestones advocates hoped it would, it has had some successes. Recent abortion restrictions in neighboring states and the Dobbs decision have caused an uptick in people traveling to Las Vegas to access reproductive services — a form of medical tourism. Jas Margarita Tobon, program manager for the Wild West Access Fund of Nevada, a donation-based fund to help people procure abortions, says she’s seen her caseload double since last summer. “We’ve seen an influx of out-of-state callers since then,” Tobon says, “from Arizona and Texas mostly.”

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Despite the challenges, medical tourism boosters remain as optimistic as they were a decade ago about the city’s potential. “The fact that Vegas is such an amazing tourism destination — I think it only has the potential to grow,” says Jonathan Edelheit, the chairman and cofounder of the Medical Tourism Association. “If you have a destination where you have great healthcare, but you don’t have any tourism … that’s tough. But I feel like Vegas has a continual customer base that will only grow over time.”

We’ll check back in on that in another 10 years.