Cosmetic surgery silver lining for medical tourists


In the looks-conscious, affluent society of South Korea, cosmetic surgery is the way to go. Imperfections in appearance are corrected through cosmetic surgery to achieve the wider eyes, whiter skin and high nose bridges that many South Koreans deem as beautiful.

The financial meltdown has, however, affected cosmetic surgery business, forcing some among those in search of beautiful looks to say “no” to the knife.

Clinics report the number of patient visits each month has been down 40 percent since September last year.

But plastic surgeons have been quoted saying that the country’s economic decline has brought a silver lining. A cheap Korean won has encouraged more and more Japanese, Chinese and Korean-Americans to come to Seoul for cosmetic procedures. Some clinics report that by the end of 2008, 20 to 30 percent of patients were foreigners, up from 10 percent a year earlier.

A few larger clinics are capitalising on the downturn at home to open branches in China, seen as the industry’s next big growth market.

A recent survey of medical tourists by the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) shows that beauty care and cosmetic surgery, along with oriental medicine and general health check-ups, are the most popular reasons to come to Korea. The number of foreign visitors coming to Korea for medical purposes has been steadfastly growing, from 16,000 in 2007 to over 40,000 in 2008, according to the Korea Health Industry Development Institute. The Council for Korea Medicine Overseas Promotion reported that 37,000 foreigners visited the country in 2008 to receive medical treatment, more than double the 15,000 who came in 2007.

Korea’s key target markets are Japan, China, the United States and the Russian Far East. The KTO believes that for Japan, marketing activities should focus on beauty care, cosmetic surgery and oriental treatment, while China shows the most potential for inbound travellers. Other markets as the US, Thailand, Singapore and India show relatively low interest toward Korea than other popular medical travel destinations, so the KTO wants to concentrate on promoting Korea’s price competitiveness, rather than on quality. As for Russia, KTO suggests that the marketing should revolve around improving Korea’s overall recognition in the region, and developing total tourism packages linked to medical treatment.

KTO is building a one-stop information centre, to open this year, with the aim of attracting 100,000 medical tourists by 2012 .The KTO also plans to use its 27 overseas offices and to participate as many exhibitions and shows abroad as possible.

Until now, it had been illegal for hospitals, clinics or agencies in Korea to recommend the services of a hospital or mediate between a patient and a medical institution for profit. Lawmakers passed a bill in early January that allows Korean hospitals and other medical institutions to market their services to foreigners. Korea’s medical industry is racing to meet the demand. Hospitals are hiring interpreters, while some are planning to place ads on newspapers catering to Korean communities overseas.

The Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs projects 80,000 people will visit Korea for medical treatment this year.



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