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Mayo and Rochester still feel loss of Middle Eastern patients
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The Mayo Clinic treats more international patients than any other U.S. healthcare institution. But since Sept. 11 Mayo's experienced a sharp decline in patients from the Persian Gulf region. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
More international patients travel to the Mayo Clinic each year than to any other U.S. health care facility. The Rochester based clinic is known around the world for everything from heart and cancer treatment to basic care. But since September 11th, Mayo has seen less and less of at least one prominent group of foreign patients -- travelers from the Persian Gulf. The situation's hurt Mayo's bottom line, but its effects have also trickeled down to Rochester's local economy.

Rochester, Minn. — The Kahler Grand Hotel offers Rochester's most lavish accommodations. For years its hosted movie stars, politicians, and even royalty. Some suites cost as much $3,500 a night.

"We have 22 suites that range from marble to some eclectic tastes," explains General Manager Bruce Fairchild. "We actually had a guest a few years ago that rearranged one of them to their tastes because they were here for an extended stay as some of our guests can be. We liked what he did and left it that way."

Summer used to be the Kahler's high season. Entourages from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates would fill the hotel. They came to Rochester accompanying patients at the Mayo Clinic. But they didn't just spend money at the clinic. Guests would purchase freely on everything from room service to electronics at local stores.

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Image The Kahler's Bruce Fairchild

But since the September 11th attacks, groups of lavish spending Middle Easterners have been few and far between.

The Kahler's Bruce Fairchild says this has been another disappointing summer. "There's been very little of it come back," says Fairchild. "Unfortunately we've had only a couple parties in. Even one of those parties had a problem because one of the names in the party was close to a name that was on the watch list. Everybody understands that's what we have to do now, but its really slowed business down, even shut it off."

Last year, Kahler officials predicted their annual business would drop by a million dollars thanks to a decline in visitors from the Persian Gulf. This year, Fairchild says the hotel has probably lost even more and he estimates the combined losses for hotels around Rochester tops a couple million dollars.

Other local businesses have also lost out. Limousine companies have disappeared. So have many specialty businesses catering to Middle Easterners.

In the past many prominent patients from the Middle East would fly to Rochester by private jet. Now, according to officials at the Rochester International Airport, those flights are down 85 percent.

None of this is news to the Mayo Clinic. Since the terrorist attacks on the East Coast, clinic officials have watched lengthy visa delays force many of their Middle Eastern patients head to Germany or London for treatment.

Steve Gudgell oversees Mayo's international activities. "Our embassy and consulate offices in the Middle East are still quoting four to six weeks for processing," says Gudgell. "Now in cases of a medical emergency, the patient can get a visa quicker but its hard for a patient to travel that distance without somebody else coming. So we run into delays with the escort coming with the patient."

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Image Mayo's Steve Gudgell

Gudgell says most patients that travel the globe for treatment, come with serious medical problems. That means more procedures and longer hospital stays. It also means more money for Mayo, which gets top dollar for providing the treatment.

"The farther a patient travels to come to the Mayo Clinic the more likely they are to have a complex medical problem. When they have a complex medical problem the more likely they are to need further diagnostics and the potential for hospitalization and surgery," Gudgell explains. "If it were simple it would have been handled at the home with their local providers."

Gudgell won't reveal how much money has been lost this summer. Last year Middle Eastern patient numbers were down more than 50 percent. Those patient numbers continue to remain low this year.

Gudgell says there's very little Mayo can do to fix the situation since its considered a matter of homeland security.

Brenda Riggott agrees. She's the director of Rochester's Convention and Visitors Bureau. It's her job to attract conventions and other large groups to town. Riggott says the loss of Middle Eastern visitors is impossible to replace. "It affects the hospitality industry. When those people were here they were here they stayed in our hotels," says Riggott. "They stayed for a longer period of time and so you have to make it up in volume and that's a population of people we don't have much control over."

On a Friday afternoon, barefoot men stream into Rochester's mosque. They kneel on red patterned carpet while an imam recites passages from the Koran.

Up until two years ago, many attending Friday prayers were temporary visitors from countries around the Middle East. That summer migration accounted for as much as 40 percent of the mosque's annual operating income. Donations also helped fuel special projects, like the purchase of 75 acres of farmland intended for an expansion.

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Image Members of Rochester's mosque

Tanveer Zubair says in some cases individual visitors would give thousands of dollars. "If people are in kind of a suffering condition they remember the god more," says Zubair. "So usually when they leave the country whatever they have spare I assume they dump as donation."

But these days things are different. Treasurer Yakup Bulur says with fewer wealthy foreign visitors, staying afloat has been a challenge.

"This institution basically survives based on donations. You know people that live here," says Bulur. "A couple of years back we had good donations so we some good savings. But if things go like this maybe three or four years later we will be facing some economical problems."

All expansion plans at the downtown mosque are now on hold. Instead mosque leaders say they are focused on remaining open and many predict a full-fledged recovery is still years away.

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