Kylie Vu holds up a photo of her favorite South Korean actress on her iPhone and points.
“I want a chin like hers,” she tells a beauty consultant at the BK Plastic Surgery clinic in Seoul’s upscale Gangnam district. Vu, 30, budgeted as much as $10,000 for a chin implant and face-lift after traveling 2,700 kilometers (1,680 miles) from Vietnam, where she manages five kindergartens.
The number of tourists visiting South Korea for cosmetic surgery has increased more than fivefold since 2009 to 15,428 last year, the health ministry says. Many, including Vu, visit the so-called beauty belt of hundreds of clinics clustered around subway stations in Gangnam, the setting for South Korean singer Psy’s “Gangnam Style.”
The trend is helping the government’s aim to add about 20,000 jobs, mainly nurses and interpreters, in the medical tourism industry over the next four years. At BK Plastic Surgery, in a 15-story building with other clinics, 16 surgeons are supported by 30 interpreters speaking languages including Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese.
“It’s worth the trip,” Vu said as she prepared for a makeover modeled on Kim Tae Hee, the current marketing face of LG Electronics Inc. refrigerators and lead actress in “Love Story in Harvard,” a Korean drama. “South Korea’s plastic surgery is known to be the best in the world.”
The number of foreigners having surgery has soared as domestic acceptance of the industry grows, Kim Byung Gun, head of BK Plastic Surgery, said in an interview. Thirty-two percent of respondents to a Seoul city government poll in 2011 said they are willing to undergo cosmetic surgery, compared with 21.5 percent who said the same in 2009.
“I’ve had patients from China and Japan since the late 1990s,” Kim said. “It’s grown more rapidly since, because of the staggering demand for plastic surgery among Koreans.”
Estimating the size of the industry is difficult because South Korea’s national health insurance doesn’t cover aesthetic surgery. A total of 649,938 cosmetic procedures were performed in South Korea in 2011, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Surgery, equivalent to 13 procedures for every 1,000 people — the most in the world.
The government has played a part in promoting the industry overseas, while larger clinics also began to tailor packages to foreigners, according to Seul Chul Hwan, head of JW Plastic Surgery in Gangnam, which employs 10 consultants who can communicate in English, Mandarin, Russian, Thai, Vietnamese and Indonesian. About 30-40 percent of JW’s patients are from abroad, Seul said in an interview.
Services often include a multilingual website, e-mail and video consultations, accommodation and airport pickups.
Plastic surgery trips cost a minimum 15 million won ($14,000), according to Lee Joon, marketing director at Seoul TouchUp, a travel agency that books hospitals, accommodation and sightseeing trips in all-inclusive packages.
South Korea wasn’t the first choice for Christian Philippone, 35, who flew to Seoul from Australia for three procedures: a chin implant, liposuction to remove neck fat and rhinoplasty, a procedure using cartilage or artificial materials including Gore-Tex, to straighten his nose. He requested the spelling of his surname be altered to protect his privacy.
The travel and surgeries altogether cost about the same as Australia and more than Thailand, which he considered before settling on South Korea on the advice of a friend, he said, without giving details.
Growing interest in Korean pop culture is a major factor drawing medical tourists from Asia, even at higher cost than having the surgery at home, Kim at BK Plastic Surgery said. Whereas Koreans typically request operations to westernize their appearances, patients from Asian countries want the features of Korean celebrities, while Americans and Europeans usually have reduction surgeries, he said.
For Vu, carrying an Hermes handbag and wearing a bracelet of the same brand, her trip is a chance to redo a chin implant she first had done in Vietnam, this time in a more K-pop style.
Michelle Lim, a student from Malaysia, spent three weeks in July choosing a clinic in the beauty belt for jaw reduction and liposuction after being inspired by the smaller, so-called v- shaped faces of Korean celebrities, the 24 year-old said in an interview. Lim, who traveled to Korea with her mother, requested her first name be changed to protect her privacy.
Psy’s “Gangnam Style” referred to Seoul’s luxury retail district and featured satirical lyrics about the habits of wealthy South Koreans. The video for the song is the most- watched on YouTube with more than 1.78 billion views.
South Korea’s government hopes to attract 500,000 medical tourists to the country by 2017, up from 203,063 last year, of which 7.6 percent came for plastic surgery. The Korea Tourism Organization estimated medical tourism revenue last year was 487 billion won ($453 million), triple the amount in 2009. Total inbound tourism revenue last year was $14 billion, according to the group.
Gangnam, the destination for more than 20 percent of all medical tourists to South Korea, opened a tour center in July to help tourists choose accredited hospitals.
The government has also cracked down on hospitals that work with unregistered tourism agencies to improve safety, while the state-run Human Resources Development Service of Korea created a qualification exam for medical tour operators.
Risks of traveling too soon after surgery include pulmonary embolism and blood clots, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
None of which is putting off Kylie Vu, who was planning to stay in Seoul for four days. “I’ll probably be back in Korea in six months to get another face-lift,” she said.
Editors: Stuart Biggs and Frank Longid.
To contact the reporter on this story: Heesu Lee in Seoul at firstname.lastname@example.org. To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stuart Biggs at email@example.com.