Kylie Vu holds up her iPhone to display a photo of her favorite South Korean actress. “I want a chin like hers,” she tells a beauty consultant at the BK Plastic Surgery clinic in Seoul. Vu, 30, budgeted $10,000 for a chin implant and face-lift and traveled more than 1,600 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, according to the country’s health ministry. Like Vu, many make a beeline for the so-called beauty belt—hundreds of clinics clustered around subway stations in Gangnam, the upscale Seoul neighborhood made famous by Korean pop singer Psy, whose Gangnam Style music video has garnered more than 1.78 billion views on YouTube (GOOG).
“I’ve had patients from China and Japan since the late 1990s,” says Kim Byung Gun, whose BK Plastic Surgery employs six surgeons, along with 30 interpreters speaking Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, English, and other languages. “It’s grown more rapidly since, because of the staggering demand for plastic surgery among Koreans.” In a 2011 poll carried out by the Seoul city government, 32 percent of respondents said they’d be willing to go under the knife to improve their looks, up from 21.5 percent in 2009. A total of 649,938 cosmetic procedures were performed in South Korea in 2011, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, more than 13 procedures for every 1,000 people—the highest rate of any country in the world.
South Korea’s medical tourism industry logged revenue of 487 billion won ($453 million) in 2012, according to estimates from the Korea Tourism Organization. That’s triple the amount in 2009. The government promotes the industry abroad and has set a target of adding about 20,000 jobs over the next four years.
South Korean clinics provide an array of special services for visitors, such as hotel accommodations, airport pickups, and multilingual websites, e-mail, and video consultations. Plastic surgery trips cost an average of $14,000, including air fare and accommodations, according to Lee Joon, marketing director at Seoul TouchUp, a travel agency that books all-inclusive packages.
Growing interest in Korean pop culture is a major factor drawing medical tourists from Asia, even though surgeries often cost more than they do at home, says Kim of BK Plastic Surgery. Koreans typically request operations to Westernize their appearance; patients from other Asian countries want the features of Korean celebrities.
Gangnam, the destination for more than 20 percent of all medical tourists to South Korea, opened a visitor center in July to help visitors choose accredited hospitals. To improve safety and safeguard the industry’s reputation, the government has begun cracking down on hospitals that work with unregistered tourism agencies. The state-run Human Resources Development Service of Korea offers a qualification exam for medical tour operators. (Risks of traveling too soon after surgery include pulmonary embolisms and blood clots, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.)
As she prepared for a makeover modeled on Kim Tae Hee, the South Korean actress who plays the lead in the popular TV drama Love Story in Harvard, Vu was already plotting a return trip to Seoul. “South Korea’s plastic surgery is known to be the best in the world,” says the Vietnamese visitor, clutching an Hermès handbag. “I’ll probably be back in Korea in six months to get another face-lift.”