From spiritual tourism to voluntourism, people now travel for many reasons other than a simple beach vacation. But one less expected type of tourism that has been growing in recent years is fertility tourism. With rising cases of infertility in the context of increased medical costs in the United States and advancements in reproductive technologies abroad, the global fertility tourism market is expected to grow at a rate of 30% over the next seven years from its 2021 valuation of $400 million USD. One such country that’s attracting infertile travellers seeking more than a sunny getaway is Barbados.
For the past 20 years, the Barbados Fertility Clinic has been helping people from around the world conceive. They offer a wide range of treatments but the most popular, according to clinic director Anna Hosford, is in vitro fertilization (known as IVF). The treatment involves the woman’s egg being fertilized with the sperm outside of the body and then transferred back into her uterus. Straight, same-sex or transgender couples can use their own egg or sperm, or that of a donor’s. In 2002, the first year the clinic opened, they performed 25 IVF cycles. In 2022, Hosford says they did over 1000.
While IVF is the most common treatment, Hosford says their fastest growing market is for egg freezing. With women increasingly prioritizing their career over raising a family, they are having children later, when it is harder to conceive. “We have a huge amount of 44 to 47-year-olds who have the career but their eggs are too old,” says Hosford. The clinic director encourages women in their early 30s to freeze their eggs, “Have an insurance plan so you can use your eggs later in life.”
Of the 2800 consultations the clinic performed last year, Hosford says only 10% to 12% of them were with local Barbadians. Majority of the clinic’s patients come from North America. Interest from U.S. couples in particular is at an all-time high, with the clinic seeing a 27% increase in inquiries from the United States in the last eight months alone. The cost difference might explain why. Egg freezing at the Barbados Fertility Clinic costs $4950 USD, IVF is $6500 USD and genetic testing is $2000 USD. Prices include all medical costs but exclude travel expenses and medications.
Meanwhile in Oklahoma, American Sarah Shellenberger—whose fertility issue is a low egg count (known medically as ‘diminished ovarian reserve’)—tells Forbes one round of IVF would have cost her $25,000 USD. “That was a huge draw to Barbados, it’s more affordable than in States,” says Shellenberger. “It ended up being significantly cheaper—even including lodging, food and travel—and we were able to do two rounds for what the price of one would’ve been in the U.S.”
Instead of the six-month wait in Oklahoma, Shellenberger says she was able to talk to a doctor in Barbados within a few weeks. “It was great to talk to an actual doctor rather than just an assistant,” Shellenberger tells Forbes. “It was very personal.”
Shellenberger and her late husband Scott flew down to Barbados for nine days. Because they knew they wanted to do a second round of IVF, they froze a vile of sperm for her to use a few months later. Rather than the impersonal, in-and-out protocol she was used to back home, Shellenberger says the Barbados Fertility Clinic was an “experience.” The clinic purposely groups patients undergoing the same treatments so that everyone is on the same schedule. “We had our egg retrievals within days of each other,” says Shellenberger. “It was neat to meet others who were at the exact same point of the journey, to get to know people.”
Shellenberger was also struck by the “warm and personal” care at the clinic, which she says helped alleviate some of the stress that comes with infertility. Shellenberger had the same nurse and doctor throughout the entire process. When she returned to Barbados last summer, she met her assigned doctor for lunch, even though they are no longer working at the clinic. “To go have lunch with the person who did your retrievals and transfer and give you your son, it’s just a different level of support,” she says.
But more than the staff, both Shellenberger and Hosford agree that the clinic’s high success rates—67% for IVF and 75% for donor egg treatments—are owed to its location. “Part of the reason our success rates are so high is because we’re in such a beautiful place,” says Hosford. Known for its laidback vibe and year-round sunny warmth, Barbados is the ideal environment for stressed out patients to focus on their fertility treatment. “There’s so many studies now on the effects of stress on fertility and sperm quality,” says Hosford. “The people who come to us are particularly stressed—they’ve tried and tried, done test after test, and nothing has worked. They just need that time for each other, away from their work and families.”
This is exactly what Shellenberger and her husband did. “It was the biggest thing we had ever done so it was nice to take the time away from our daily lives and just be in Barbados,” she says. “If we were at home, we would be checking our phones constantly for updates. When we were in Barbados, it was nice to know that, ‘our job today is to just rest and recover from this procedure, then we’re going to go to the beach and on a tour of the island.’ It was still incredibly stressful but it was definitely a distraction.”
Shellenberger’s sunny treatment experience turned dark when, in the second round of IVF treatment, her husband suffered a sudden heart attack back home in Oklahoma. He died shortly thereafter, but Shellenberger continued treatment. “It never crossed my mind as an option to not move forward with the treatment,” she says. I’ve wanted to be a mom since I was a kid.”
Knowing that her husband knew of the baby’s existence only fuelled Shellenberger’s resolve to carry their baby to term. “When we found out that our first one was a boy, Scott was so excited, he was over the moon,” says Shellenberger. “That is so special to me, that he knew about him. And as the first grandchild on Scott’s parents side, it’s incredibly emotional for Scott’s parents to have his son.” Their near two-year-old boy Hayes—who both Ms. Shellenberger and Hosford agree looks like his dad—is just one way Mr. Shellenberger’s legacy lives on.
This is the other effect of fertility tourism—the destination takes on a whole new meaning for the medical tourists who travel there to conceive. For Shellenberger, Barbados is associated with some trauma, as it is the last getaway she had with her husband and where she was when she last spoke with him on the phone. “Barbados will always be an emotional place for me. It will always remind me of Scott, the hope we had going there,” she says. “But it will also forever be the place that gave me my son, and the ability to be a mom, which has been my biggest dream.”