How about a hot spring spa -- on health insurance?

TAIPEI (Reuters Life!) - Taiwan’s hot springs operators have asked the government to let their customers claim soaks in the therapeutic mineral waters on health insurance.

On a request from the Republic of China Hot Springs Tourism Association, the cabinet will discuss next week whether government health insurance should cover visits to the island’s geothermal hot springs resorts, Josef Wu, deputy water resources director of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, said on Friday.

“This would have huge advantages for the operators and customers,” said Chen Hui-cheng, deputy secretary general of the 156-member association. “This is not normal hot water. We hope in the future we can join the health insurance program.”

Taiwan’s 500 hot springs, housed in establishments ranging from murky roadside bathhouses to palm-festooned resorts nestled in the mountains, are said to be good for the skin and muscles.

The hot-dip tradition began in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation of the island before 1945. Former President Lee Teng-hui cracked down on spas due to their links to prostitution, and the numbers plummeted until 1998.

But Taiwan tourism officials are pumping new life into the industry with laws to guarantee sanitation and mineral water authenticity. The Taiwan Tourism Bureau estimated there were 21 million hot spring visits in 2004.

Taiwan’s health insurance normally applies to hospitals and doctor’s visits. To include hot springs resorts would require the health department’s approval, Wu said.

“Whether the hot springs can get involved in this is something we need to discuss further,” said Wu, whose department received the association’s request. “A lot of different laws apply to it. We can’t just decide on our own.”

Reporting by Ralph Jennings; Editing by Miral Fahmy