Why Tourists Flock to Seoul for a New Face

Photo: BK DongYang Plastic Surgery Clinic in South Korea

When Singapore resident Jennifer Lim, 28, got fed up with people asking her whether she was tired, even when she was energetically wide awake, she knew it was time for a makeover.

"I have very sleepy and droopy eyes. Friends always ask me, 'Did you sleep last night?'" Lim said, lifting her eyelids to show what a horizontal stitch above the eye line would look like.

Creating double eyelids is a popular surgery that, in effect, makes Asians' eyes look rounder and wider. "It's just not a good feeling, I want self-confidence," Lim said.

To that end, Lim went on line searching for doctors abroad. After several weeks of Web surfing and chatting, she got together with three other women who shared similar interests. They agreed to meet in Seoul, South Korea, for a two-week adventure: one week for surgery and recovery, then a second week for after-care and shopping.

Lim and Elaine Teo, 34, both Singaporeans, traveled together. Two other women in their 20s, who did not want to be named, flew in from Indonesia and California.

"Yeah, we'll all be ugly and all swelled up after it's done," Teo said, giggling in the pre-surgery room of the BK DongYang Plastic Surgery Clinic. "But we can laugh at each other, all bandaged up together in our hotel rooms."

She chose a "fat graft" procedure that removes fat from the stomach that is later injected on the forehead and sunken cheek fold to make a fuller profile. Lim opted for a chin implant and narrowing of her nose, in addition to double eyelids.

The clinic is one of Korea's largest, in the heart of Seoul's posh Kangnam shopping area where plastic surgery clinics are easily found on almost every other block. More than half of the nation's 699 plastic surgery hospitals have opened business in this district.

But the economic downturn has resulted in fewer domestic patients in recent months. So Dr. Kim Byung-Gun and his team of 14 surgeons are instead focusing on the larger Asian market, boosted by the Korean government's drive to lure more foreign medical tourists. Kim opened three sub-clinics in China and he travels regularly to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore to lure new patients through consultation seminars. "After work, I respond to over 100 e-mail inquires from all over the world every night," he claims in pride.

One Offer: 'Medical Beauty Package Tours'

To jump on the bandwagon, other clinics are following suit, hiring Japanese, Chinese and English-speaking translators. Hotels and tour agencies are getting together with popular clinics to offer "medical beauty package tours" that consist of a clinic trip, spa programs, shopping and sightseeing.

Plastic surgery in South Korea had already been competitively priced, even before the local currency's recent free fall made the cost even more attractive for people from other countries.

But that's not the only appeal. "Asians prefer Asian doctors because what they want is different from Caucasians," Kim said, while stitching the edge of Lim's nostrils in one of the 12 surgery rooms in full operation at the BK DongYang Plastic Surgery Clinic. "In America and Europe, patients usually want to reduce the hump or the tip size of their noses. But Asians want the opposite, higher and sharper noses."

His hospital, an fifteen-story building, performs 60 to 70 operations on average, everyday.

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