“Big eyes, a high-bridged nose, and a small face,” describes the current beauty trend in South Korea according to Zhao Ting of the ID Clinic. And for many South Korean women, the choice to undergo surgery and attain these features, is a strategic one. Dr. Park Sanghoon, describes “survival surgery,” asserting that “Life competition is so stiff in Korea people who want to survive that competition come here [for plastic surgery].” According to the studies conducted at the Huazhong University, females can earn up to 2% more for every centimeter of height. Considering that South Korea has the lowest rate of employment for female college graduates amongst the wealthier nations, perhaps it isn’t surprising that South Koreans get the most plastic surgery per capita of anywhere in the world, approximately 13 procedures for every 1000 people. As these so-call “survival surgeries” have grown in popularity, so has the industry around them.
South Korea’s medical tourism industry has been steadily growing since 2007 when the government lifted visa requirements that restricted extended medical stays in order to attract more foreign clients. Again the industry received government support when in 2009 amendments were made to preexisting medical legislation allowing hospitals and clinics to actively seek out foreign clients through advertising and reward programs.
The well-timed “Korean Wave” – the export of Korean music and popular culture across Asia – has fueled the cosmetic section of the medical tourism industry by presenting a carefully crafted image of the Korean pop-star as both desirable and attainable. Many K-Pop stars openly admit to surgical image enhancements, for example Hyorin of SISTAR, one of K-Pop’s biggest groups, has said of plastic surgery, “I am going to, but I am too scared!” Although Hyorin has previously admitted to having eyelid surgery, it is such a common procedure it apparently doesn’t count.
$3.2 billion in revenue expected as of 2020
With public and government support, the medical tourism industry in South Korea has been growing fast, earning 187 million (US$) in the first 11 months of 2013. The figure is up 35.3% from the $138 million earned in 2012. By 2020, the number of medical tourists is projected to climb upwards of 1 million, earning approximately $3.2 billion in revenue.
Medical tourism describes an industry that provides affordable medical procedures and throws in a vacation. Fourteen percent of South Korea’s medical tourism industry consists of cosmetic surgery procedures, second only to internal medicine.
The businesses that have grown up around this industry range in price and quality. Seoul TouchUp is one of the many medical tourist providers that offer vacation packages easily accessible to foreigners. Their TouchUp Lite Plan includes a medical translator, hotel and transportation for a minimum of $900, surgery costs and airfare extra. Higher-end options include city tours, meals, recovery therapy, and visa arrangements for a minimum of $9000, with surgery costs and airfare being extra. Some of the most expensive plans are available through consultation only, directed towards “High Profile Individuals/VIPs” and include an entourage of people to shuffle the client to appointments, throughout Seoul and anywhere else they wish to travel.
500+ plastic surgery clinics in Gangham
The “beauty tours” offered often include a visit to Apgujeong located in the Gangham district in Seoul. There are more than 500 plastic surgery clinics in Gangham, an area also known for being fashionable and setting trends. While Seoul may be the largest plastic surgery destination in Korea, Busan is competing for most vibrant. South Korea’s second largest metropolis after Seoul is home of the Busan Seomyeon Medical Street, boasting over 160 medical clinics and yearly street festivals which provide on-the-spot consultations and 3D digital face shaping , as well s clowns, magic shows, and puppets.
Jeju: The 370-acre Healthcare Town
Currently under construction in South Korea’s province of Jeju is the 370-acre Healthcare Town. Healthcare Town will target affluent visitors with the highest quality medical and tourist expectations. The complex will include top-notch medical facilities, research and development centers, wellness centers, rehabilitation centers, as well as, upscale apartments, an eighteen hole golf course, beaches, and water parks. Groundbreaking ceremonies took place in April of 2012, and projections see the medical tourist theme park open as early as December 2014.
Those traveling to South Korea to take advantage of the booming medical tourism industry, for the most part are not going for the savings. Although the Korean Tourist Organization advertises that prices are one-tenth of that offered in the United States, a recent slew of articles published by the Korea Times claim that Korean Hospitals have discriminatory pricing policies, charging foreign clients two or three times more than locals. Noh Jung-Woo, chief administrator for the Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital claims that foreigners are only charged slightly more and the reason for the extra fees is because of their demand for longer consultations and interpretation services. The price discrepancy is seen by many Koreans as fair, given the marketing efforts and money spent to attract foreign patients. The two-tiered pricing policy doesn’t seem to discourage Americans who in 2009 made up the largest percentage of medical tourists, at 33%. Kim Min Ji of the KTO claims that a quarter of that 33% includes American troops stationed in South Korea; and that the majority of the US target market are Asian Americans. But as the Korean Wave washes over the Americas fueling the desire for novel expression and trendsetting tips, Korean plastic surgery begins to appeal to an even wider demographic. In December of 2013, Canadian Miss Universe Canada Contestant Jenna Talackova traveled to South Korea to visit the famous Dr. Park Sang-Hoon at the ID Hospital in Seoul, “I decided to come to Korea because I really feel that Korea has perfected the jaw surgery and the level of expertise here in plastic surgery is up to my level.”
In spite of the two-tiered price system, South Korea offers medical tourist packages that allow for ease of travel and a level of comfort that people are willing to pay for. Korean hospitals and clinics offer a variety of medical services ranging from cancer treatment to dental care, but for whatever reason, everyone just really wants a nose job.
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