Plastic Surgery Tourism Brings Chinese to South Korea

by Alexandra 

SEOUL, South Korea — Liu Liping and two college friends recently toured Seoul on a month long vacation funded in part by their parents. They saw the sights. They went shopping.

One night, the three young Chinese women visited the latest hot spot: a plastic surgery clinic.

Ms. Liu, 24, wanted to have her jaw broken and restructured to get a V-shaped face. Dr. Kim Tae-gyu at Braun Plastic Surgery suggested something less drastic. “But look! I have huge bones, I need to do it,” Ms. Liu protested. They settled on removing several millimeters of bone from her chin and cheekbones. Her friends, Wu Haiyan, 26, and Jin Meilan, 25, considered nose jobs.

Cosmetic surgery, pervasive in South Korea, is now the must-do activity for many Chinese visitors.

The lights stay on all night in the Gangnam district, where plastic surgery clinics line the streets. Signs in Chinese beckon visitors. Once they are inside, translators stand ready.

Seizing an opportunity to tap the steady and ubiquitous flow of China’s newly rich who are traveling overseas, South Korea’s government is promoting the country as a place to shop, eat, stay — and perhaps get a nip and a tuck.

Photo

Nurses helped Lu Shujuan walk toward a recovery room at Oracle Clinic. South Korea is becoming a popular destination for medical tourists from China seeking body modifications.CreditJean Chung for The New York Times

And the Chinese, mainly women, are visiting in droves for body modifications, from the minor, like double eyelid surgery, to the extreme, like facial restructuring. While plastic surgery is common in China, South Korean hospitals are perceived to be safer and more hygienic, albeit pricier.

“When the Chinese come to the stores, they empty them,” said Kim Soo-jin, a representative at the medical tourism unit of the Korean tourism office. “If we can turn them into medical tourists, they are more likely to stay longer. They will eat one more meal, buy one more thing and go to another site.”

The South Korean government is setting aside as much as $4 million a year to help promote the medical tourism industry, which is dominated by plastic surgeons. It expects one million medical tourists a year by 2020, up from 211,218 last year, with Chinese travelers representing the largest segment.

Tour operators sell travel deals that include shopping, sightseeing and plastic surgery. Premier packages include a stretch limo for the ride from the hotel to the clinic. Licensed brokers take a cut of the total surgery costs, up to 35 percent.

While prices for tourists vary widely, a basic double eyelid surgery can cost more than $900. A plastic surgery trip, with hotel and other activities, can run around $15,000. In general, it is more expensive than in China.

“I’ve seen them coming in with bags of money,” said Dr. Ro Young-woo, a founding partner of a South Korean franchise chain of clinics called Oracle Clinic.

Popular culture has had an influence. Korean television shows and movies are wildly successful in China. Patients often take magazine photos to their consultations.

“We see more assertiveness in Chinese patients than Korean patients,” Dr. Kim Eung-sam, a plastic surgeon and director at the Hershe clinic in Seoul. “They want to look like certain Korean celebrities.”

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