Nip n' tuck tour boosts Lebanon summer season

Plastic surgery tourism initiative hopes to help economy


Once taboo but now commonplace, plastic surgery has always been a booming business for Lebanon, which is now cashing in on tourists from abroad seeking sun, sea and scalpel at a fraction of the price they would pay at home.

A new cosmetic surgery tourism initiative launched by a private company under the auspices of Lebanon’s tourism ministry promises a hassle free visit that includes post-operation rest and recuperation in first-class resorts and even summer camps for patients' children.

Dubai-based Image Concept handles bookings and accommodation for tourists seeking cosmetic surgery in Lebanon, famed for its skilled yet affordable surgeons.

“Summer is amazing this year in Lebanon, it’s booming,” founder Zeina al-Haj told Al Arabiya, adding that she has received bookings on almost a daily basis since the company opened in May.

“Compared to Europe and other places, Lebanon offers very cost-effective rates and a very experienced medical sector. This is a truly innovative concept and the first of its kind in the region," she added.

“It combines two successful and renowned sectors of the Lebanese economy, the tourism and the medical industries, which has always had a strong reputation.”

Nicole, a native New Yorker of Lebanese origin, recently saved $7,000 (€5,000) by having a nose job in Lebanon.

"In the States it would cost me about 9,000 dollars (€6,400) to have rhinoplasty, but in Lebanon it cost me only $2,000 (€1,400)," said the 21-year-old law student.

Compared to Europe and other places, Lebanon offers very cost-effective rates and a very experienced medical sector

Zeina al-Haj, Image Concepts

Economic makeover

Nada Sardouk, the tourism ministry's director general, called the program "innovative and promising" at the program’s June launch in Lebanon.

"Cosmetic tourism is a widely recognized and appreciated concept, and we are very hopeful that this initiative will contribute to our economy," she said. And with hotel occupancy already at 85 percent for the summer, according to the head of Lebanon's hotel owners syndicate, getting help booking could be a valuable service.

Last year 1.3 million tourists visited Lebanon and a record 2 million are expected this year, with at least some interested in coming for cosmetic surgery, the ministry said.

Local banks have also played their part, with many offering low-interest loans for beautification procedures. The First National Bank became Lebanon’s first bank to offer elective plastic surgery loans in 2007, just in time for the summer season.

Estimating how many nip-and-tucks will take place this summer is difficult, but a handful of top surgeons told AFP they each had hundreds of operations scheduled for August alone, many of them clients from the oil-rich Gulf.

Braving the knife

Nour, a 26-year-old Kuwaiti, is taking full advantage of her holiday in Lebanon and readying for rhinoplasty and surgery to remove a small scar.
Although both she and her surgeon agree that neither surgery is "necessary," she said she wanted to look better for her job at a bank.

"I come to Lebanon anyway every year for vacation," Nour told AFP at the Hazmieh International Medical Center, which employs an army of more than 50 cosmetic surgeons and is still expanding. "All doctors here are skilled, the prices are moderate and it's not a taboo anymore."

Surgeon Elias Shammas, who heads the Hazmieh center and is affiliated with Image Concept, said Nour was one of many patients of all ages and genders who braved the knife to be "fashionable."

"And Lebanon has always been famous for medical tourism, way before the civil war" from 1975 to 1990, he added. "The only thing that stopped people coming here was the political situation."

According to the Lebanese Society of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic surgery, 1.5 million plastic surgeries are performed in Lebanon each year, and demand has risen significantly since Israel’s 2006 July war on Lebanon.

All doctors here are skilled, the prices are moderate and it's not a taboo anymore

Nour, a Kuwaiti

Nader Saab, surgeon to the stars and a jury member on the Miss Lebanon beauty pageant, said three quarters of his clients in the summer season, which is already fully booked, hail from abroad.

Men are increasingly seeking cosmetic surgery, with as many as 30 percent performed on men, especially nose jobs, according to the Lebanese Society of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic surgery.

But Saab says it is still mostly women who feel the need to "compete."

"Aging is coming, and a woman is aware that she might be replaced by another woman," he told AFP. "We live in a society in which appearances are very important."

A popular model among women opting for plastic surgery is pop star and sex symbol Haifa Wehbe, surgeons say, and many young ladies leave clinics looking uncannily like the dark-haired, voluptuous siren.

What women want generally is "a sexy body -- a good silhouette and beautiful boobs," Saab added.

And according to Shammas, "It is a national duty for women to look the best they can."

<i>(With AFP)</i>