Mon, Dec 29, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Chinese go to Korea for a change of face

South Korea’s government is promoting the country to Chinese tourists as a place to shop, eat, stay — and perhaps get a nip and a tuck

By Alexandra Stevenson  /  NY Times News Service, SEOUL, South Korea

A plastic surgeon performs a nose operation at a clinic in the southwest Chinese city of Chongqing. Chinese women are increasingly heading to South Korea to have cosmetic surgery performed, perceiving it as safer and more hygienic.

Photo: AFP

Liu Liping and two college friends recently toured Seoul on a month-long vacation funded in part by their parents. They saw the sights. They went shopping.

One night, the three young Chinese women visited the latest hot spot: a plastic surgery clinic.

Liu, 24, wanted to have her jaw broken and restructured to get a V-shaped face. Dr Kim Tae-gyu at Braun Plastic Surgery suggested something less drastic. “But look! I have huge bones, I need to do it,” Liu protested. They settled on removing several millimeters of bone from her chin and cheekbones. Her friends, Wu Haiyan, 26, and Jin Meilan, 25, considered nose jobs.


Cosmetic surgery, pervasive in South Korea, is now the must-do activity for many Chinese visitors.

The lights stay on all night in the Gangnam district, where plastic surgery clinics line the streets. Signs in Chinese beckon visitors. Once they are inside, translators stand ready.

Seizing an opportunity to tap the steady and ubiquitous flow of China’s newly rich who are traveling overseas, South Korea’s government is promoting the country as a place to shop, eat, stay — and perhaps get a nip and a tuck.

And the Chinese, mainly women, are visiting in droves for body modifications, from the minor, like double eyelid surgery, to the extreme, like facial restructuring. While plastic surgery is common in China, South Korean hospitals are perceived to be safer and more hygienic, albeit pricier.


“When the Chinese come to the stores, they empty them,” said Kim Soo-jin, a representative at the medical tourism unit of the Korean tourism office. “If we can turn them into medical tourists, they are more likely to stay longer. They will eat one more meal, buy one more thing and go to another site.”

The South Korean government is setting aside as much as US$4 million a year to help promote the medical tourism industry, which is dominated by plastic surgeons. It expects 1 million medical tourists a year by 2020, up from 211,218 last year, with Chinese travelers representing the largest segment.

Tour operators sell travel deals that include shopping, sightseeing and plastic surgery. Premier packages include a stretch limo for the ride from the hotel to the clinic. Licensed brokers take a cut of the total surgery costs, up to 35 percent.

While prices for tourists vary widely, a basic double eyelid surgery can cost more than US$900. A plastic surgery trip, with hotel and other activities, can run around US$15,000. In general, it is more expensive than in China.

“I’ve seen them coming in with bags of money,” said Dr. Ro Young-woo, a founding partner of a South Korean franchise chain of clinics called Oracle Clinic.


Popular culture has had an influence. Korean television shows and movies are wildly successful in China. Patients often take magazine photos to their consultations.

“We see more assertiveness in Chinese patients than Korean patients,” Dr. Kim Eung-sam, a plastic surgeon and director at the Hershe clinic in Seoul. “They want to look like certain Korean celebrities.”

During their trip, Liu, Wu and Jin planned to see the sights featured in their favorite Korean TV show, My Love From the Star. They bought clothes like those worn by the show’s female star, Jeon Ji-hyun. Jin asked for the same nose as another famous Korean actress, Han Ga-in.

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