June 14, 2023 08:40
Korea's medical tourism industry is recovering quickly from the coronavirus pandemic.
The number of foreigners who came here last year for plastic surgery alone tripled since locked-down 2020 to 46,000. Foreigners with bandaged-up faces are becoming a common sight again around Seoul's Gangnam subway station, which has a high concentration of plastic surgery clinics.
Clinics roll out the red carpet for their foreign clients, sending a car to pick them up at the airport and offering them discounts in nearby hotels. Gangnam's district office offers a 50 percent discount on taxi fares for foreign plastic surgery patients from the airport.
Thais made up the biggest proportion of foreign plastic surgery patients last year at 11,207, followed by Japanese (8,600), Chinese (6,422), Americans (5,100) and Vietnamese (3,448).
The main driver has been the global K-pop craze, and everyone now wants to look like its carefully doctored starlets, with their pointy noses and chins and big round eyes.
"Thai clients often arrive carrying photos of their K-pop idols," a staffer at the Seoul Tourism Organization said. One plastic surgery clinic in southern Seoul hired Thai staff to handle client relations, offering consultations in Bangkok and keeping track of possible follow-up procedures after surgery. When the clinic performed a job on a famous Thai influencer, she posted the entire process on YouTube.
A consultant for another plastic surgery clinic in southern Seoul said, "Patients from Thailand and Vietnam want different looks than Chinese or Japanese. Southeast Asians want to look glamorous and bring photos of Blackpink's Lisa, while Japanese patients often show photos of Red Velvet's Irene."
Lisa is Thai and has a roundish baby face, while Irene has a thin nose and pointy chin that make her look rather like an anime character.
Public agencies are doing what they can to help. Since last August, Gangnam's district office has been operating an app that lets foreigners look for plastic surgery clinics in southern Seoul by inputting their desired procedures and offers real-time consulting services. Now it plans to open a medical tourism center in the tony Apgujeong-dong area.
The Seoul Tourism Organization, meanwhile, has selected 118 medical centers in the capital to attract tourists, 40 percent of them plastic surgery clinics.
But experts say there should be an integrated system if Korea's medical tourism industry is to thrive. Shin Hak-seung at Hanyang University said compared to regional health tourism hub Singapore, "There is a language barrier in Korea, so we need to hire coordinators. In addition to attracting plastic surgery tourists, Korean general hospitals should open branches overseas so foreigners can gain trust in our medical services."
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