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  • Writer's picturePamela Tames

Wellbeing Beyond Borders: Unveiling the Healing Power of Croatia through ZagrebMed

by Pamela Tames


If you watched Game of Thrones, you probably remember the jaw-dropping locations—King’s Landing, Daenerys Targaryen's throne room in Meereen, and the Haunted Forest. They were all shot in parts of Croatia, a country located in southeast Europe, nestled along the Adriatic Sea. As impressive as these iconic spots may be, they’re just part of what Croatia has to offer. When it comes to health tourism, in particular, Croatia offers high-quality, affordable care in dentistry, orthopedics, cosmetic surgery, as well as longevity treatments, world-class thermal spas, and Forest Therapy. Recently, an organized effort with the support of the government, the Zagreb tourism board, and the City of Zagreb led to the creation of a health tourism hub, ZagrebMed.com. Here, local specialists will connect you to the best providers to meet your medical and wellness needs, handle logistics, and ensure full transparency on pricing—all for no charge. I talked with Ivan Rendulić, CEO of a health tourism consulting group, called RexRea, and the driving force behind ZagrebMed.com.



Ivan Rendulić, the driving force behind ZagrebMed.

Croatia is known for its unique blend of influences, from its Slavic roots to its Mediterranean climate and Venetian elegance. It’s got fortresses and cathedrals, walled cities and palaces, 1,800 miles of incredible coastline, 1,200 islands, olive groves, and national parks studded with cascading waterfalls. On top of all that, it offers a range of health services, now easily accessed through ZagrebMed.com. How did you get involved in promoting Croatia's health tourism?


Ivan Rendulić: RexRea is a family-owned consultancy that’s been involved in health tourism in Croatia for more than 10 years. My mother started it after she was invited by a number of hospitals to help develop international markets for their services. I jumped into the business after a decade in the oil and gas industry, bringing my background in economics and marketing to the business. I knew Croatia had huge potential in health tourism because of its historical legacy and reputation throughout Europe.


How has the health tourism industry evolved since you first got into it?


In the beginning, the health tourism industry in Croatia was fragmented with clinics promoting their services directly to customers. When COVID hit, everything stopped and that gave us an opportunity to step back and assess the industry as a whole to determine where we wanted to go. We presented a proposal to the Tourism Board and the Mayor of Zagreb, outlining a strategic initiative to create a common brand to promote the best clinics and wellness services in and around Zagreb, which is the capital city and also the healthcare hub in the region. That’s when the customer-facing brand called ZagrebMed.com was launched. We started small but grew quickly so that today we have the support of the government, the Ministry of Health, the Croatian Chamber of Economy, Croatia Airlines—the national airline and a strategic partner— and Obzor holidays as our strategic and exclusive Destination Management Company (DMC) partner. Essentially we were following the very successful model used by Turkey to advance their health tourism offerings. Twenty years ago it was unheard of for somebody to go to Turkey for any kind of treatment in Europe. Now Turkey is synonymous with hair transplants.

What’s the mission of ZagrebMed.com?


ZagrebMed.com is essentially a one-stop shop for health tourism services available in Croatia. Our philosophy is that health is the most important thing in the world. Nothing comes before it. For us then, health tourism is not about marketing cheaper medical services. It’s about providing a needed treatment to a patient who cannot access care at home. Health care isn’t always pretty. It’s not just about people coming for plastic surgery. Sometimes we handle difficult, complex cases. We really want to help people and make healthcare accessible to them. I want people to come here without doubts or questions about their care so that they feel calm and confident about getting the treatment they need.


Tell me how it works. How would I use ZagrebMed.com to access healthcare in Croatia?


If you go to ZagrebMed.com, you will find all the information you need to assess what’s available, including details about various procedures, profiles of doctors, and basic pricing. In determining which clinics to represent on ZagrebMed, we relied on our past experience and industry knowledge, choosing only those clinics delivering the highest quality of care. Additional criteria for the clinics profiled on the site include having the capability of working with patients from abroad. Do the doctors speak different languages and have international medical experience, such as medical qualifications from other European countries? Do they offer the support services international patients require? All these factors are important for ensuring you get comprehensive care.


How can I actually schedule services once I identify a clinic I want to go to from your site?


Beyond being an information hub, ZagrebMed.com provides booking services at no charge. First, you would submit an inquiry about the type of medical service you need, when you want to come, how many people you’re traveling with, and how long you want to stay. A dedicated local expert will send your request for medical-specific services directly to the appropriate hospital. A patient profile is created that includes your medical details and documentation, and which hospital is handling your case. It serves as a kind of health card. Going forward, you will communicate with your doctors directly and they will guide you through your personalized care plan. Many health professionals in Croatia speak fluent English and can address all your questions and concerns. At the same time, your facilitator will organize your trip, handling all the logistics so that your trip goes smoothly and your medical needs are prioritized.


Give me an example of the kind of planning and support ZagrebMed provides.


Let's say you are traveling for a plastic surgery procedure and you are coming with friends. You arrive for the initial exam and then after the surgery, you want to recuperate with your friends at a thermal spa. Or, maybe your friends want to do a complete health check. We will map out an itinerary and schedule for you and handle all the logistics. Our goal is to ensure all your questions are answered before you leave. By the time you board your plane, you will know who is meeting you at the airport, where you’re staying, and what the itinerary is for each day. If you need blood work done prior to a procedure, we will send a mobile team to your hotel to collect the blood sample. When you meet with your doctor team directly, your friends and family can be off sightseeing. At every step, you will have a contact person who will be your assistant.


Bagatin clinic has been awarded best International Cosmetic Surgery Clinic of the Year for several years by the International Medical Tourism Journal. It offers a range of services in cosmetic surgery, dentistry, and dermatology. © Moj Posao

In terms of top-rated health services, what is Croatia best known for and who’s the market?


Because of proximity, our core market includes Central Europe, the UK, and Scandinavian countries. We’ve also had patients coming from the US, Russia, and the Middle East. We’re probably best known for dentistry. Croatia boasts highly skilled dentists and modern dental clinics offering affordable yet high-quality treatments. We handle about 250,000 dental patients each year. Next, I’d say Orthopedics and Rehabilitation. Croatia excels in sports medicine and treatment of musculoskeletal conditions and we often get very complex cases. This includes sports medicine, minimally invasive techniques for joint replacements, arthroscopic surgery, and spinal treatments. We also have excellent rehabilitation programs that integrate physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, and other modalities to maximize recovery. In recent years, we have had a surge of interest from the UK market for these services since they often face years-long waiting lists at home. Dermatology and Plastic Surgery are also big. We have boutique clinics that offer highly personalized aesthetic and reconstructive procedures at competitive prices compared to Western Europe.


Daruvarske Toplice is a special hospital complex and spa resort located in the town of Daruvar, in eastern Croatia. The complex is renowned for its thermal waters, used in the treatment of various health conditions, particularly rehabilitation, women’s fertility, and aesthetic surgery. © Daruvar City Tourist Board

It sounds like concierge service at its best. Are you sure there are no hidden fees?


I know in some countries, you have to work through a facilitator and there is a markup on all prices. That’s never the case at ZagrebMed. There is no additional charge of any kind for using ZagrebMed services. Whether you book a hospital service through us or directly with the hospital, it’s exactly the same cost. All pricing is fully transparent and you pay the clinics directly.


I’ve heard Croatia offers Thalassotherapy but I’m not exactly sure what that entails. Can you describe this treatment?


Thalassotherapy is available only in a few places in the world and is strictly regulated since certain criteria must be met. We had the first Thalassotherapy center on the Adriatic coast going back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Thalassotherapy treatments can take many forms, including:


  • Hydrotherapy: This involves using seawater in various ways, such as showers, jets, and whirlpools, to massage and stimulate the body.


  • Algotherapy: This uses seaweed and algae in wraps, baths, and massages to nourish and detoxify the skin.


  • Heliotherapy: This involves exposure to sunlight, which can improve mood, sleep, and vitamin D levels.


  • Climatotherapy: This involves taking advantage of the unique microclimate of the seaside, which is often characterized by clean air, moderate temperatures, and high humidity.


With aging populations around the world, these therapies are increasingly popular given the range of potential benefits, including improved skin health, reduced stress and anxiety, pain relief, boosted immunity, and enhanced sleep quality.



In the West, there’s still a heavy reliance on pharmaceuticals and surgery. What is the approach to health in Croatia?


The overall approach to health in Croatia is to find natural, holistic ways to treat people, combining many modalities such as diet and lifestyle factors, natural therapies, and nature. We believe in stepping back from technology and pharmaceuticals to get to the root causes, not just symptoms. Food, of course, is very important. Typically wellness programs focus on the Mediterranean diet with regional variations. The Mediterranean diet is protected by UNESCO because it not only promotes health, but also enhances well-being, sustainable agricultural practices, and a connection to the land. This fosters respect for the environment and traditional ways of life.


Croatia is also famous for Forest Therapy. You even have a Society dedicated to advancing the discipline and hosted a scientific meeting on Forest Therapy in 2023 when scientists from all over the world met to share findings on the effectiveness of Forest Medicine and Forest Therapy. Sounds intriguing.


I live in Zagreb and go hiking in a nearby forest with my friends every Sunday morning. The forest grounds you, getting rid of all the ionizing effects on your body from technology. It resets you to a naturally calm, healthy state. The term, Forest Therapy, was inspired by the Japanese practice, of Shinrin-Yoku, which literally means "forest bathing." Guided Forest Therapy programs can be found in our many national parks, such as Plitvice Lakes National Park and Krka National Park Forest. Therapy may include walks, retreats, and workshops, showcasing unique ecosystems and diverse flora and fauna. Some wellness centers have incorporated Forest Therapy sessions into their packages, combining nature immersion with other therapeutic practices. You can explore the forests on your own, or go on a guided session in which you’re led through the forest on predetermined paths, incorporating mindfulness exercises, slow walks, sensory-focused activities, and breathing techniques. Numerous studies have shown that spending time in forests can lower cortisol levels (the stress hormone), strengthen immunity, and promote feelings of calmness and relaxation.



Naftalan Spa treatment rooms and special Naftalan oil © Naftalan Hospital


Are there any other unique, specialized treatments particular to Croatia?


Less than 20 miles from Zagreb is a very famous, unique spa that offers Naftalan oil therapy—Naftalan Spa in Ivanić-Grad, Zagreb County. Naftalan is a naturally occurring, mineral oil-like substance found only in Croatia and Azerbaijan. It has anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. Naftalan Spa offers various Naftalan treatments, including baths, wraps, and massages. It primarily caters to patients with skin conditions like psoriasis, dermatitis, and scleroderma. However, the treatments can also benefit those with musculoskeletal problems, burns, and chronic pain. It’s completely safe and helps alleviate symptoms of psoriasis or dermatitis. People stay for 2 to 3 weeks and often experience relief lasting 6 months up to one year.


What should I know about Croatia before planning a trip?


Tourism is very important in Croatia since it constitutes over 30% of our GDP. I’d say our brand is “slow tourism,” especially on the coast. The lifestyle there can be like a relaxing drug. One common thing we hear from tourists coming to Croatia is that Croatia is a super safe country. And it is. You can safely walk around any part of Croatia even at night alone. Another thing is that even though Croatia is a small country— about 4 million in total with about 1 million people in Zagreb—there is a lot of cultural diversity. If you compare people living in the capital to people living on the coast, for instance, it’s like being in two different countries. The language, climate, and food are totally different. Probably the biggest issue is a lack of direct flights from the US. You can fly from Philadelphia to Dubrovnik but then you have to take a 45-minute flight to Zagreb. Once you get here though, everything is close by. I live in Zagreb. If I want to go skiing, it’s 45 min to the slopes. Getting to the coast takes an hour by car. Slovenia is 20 minutes away, Vienna is 3 hours and Belgrade 3 hours. When planning your trip, I’d recommend avoiding the peak summer months since it’s super hot and the main cities can get very crowded. Perfect months to come to Croatia would be late spring or early summer —April, May--or September, October. Visit ZagrebMed.com and we’ll steer you in the right direction.




Pamela Tames is a health journalist actively researching the rapidly growing world of medical, dental, and wellness tourism with the goal of creating a docu-series. If you work in the field or represent a country that is promulgating such services, please contact her on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/pamelatamesbrands/

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