South Korea has now turned its attention to the lucrative medical tourism sector by recognizing the skills of cosmetic surgeons in the country.
Helped by active government support, a boom in cosmetic surgery and a pool of experienced surgeons, the country wants to surpass Singapore, Thailand and India to become Asia's new medical tourism hub.
Advertisement"In foreign countries, the combination of the health and tourism industries is emerging as a new future-oriented industrial sector," President Lee Myung-Bak said at a recent policy briefing.
"South Korea, which has world-class medical staff, has failed to capitalise on the combination of health and tourism, mainly due to excessive regulations."
Health Minister Kim Soung-Yee said recently the government would step up efforts to win parliamentary approval of a bill that would legalise profit-oriented medical brokerages linking hospitals and patients.
Even without local insurance benefits, foreigners find high-quality services cheaper than in the United States or Japan, Kim said.
"And for cosmetic surgery, Korea has already become popular with the wealthy of Southeast Asia."
The health ministry helps hospitals in marketing or providing consultations and is pushing to simplify visa issuance for overseas patients.
Hospitals have set an ambitious goal of 100,000 foreign patients annually by 2012. In March last year 36 hospitals and state agencies formed the Council for Korean Medicine Overseas Promotion (CKMP) to tap the fast-growing market.
Separately, the Seoul city government has launched a project to attract more foreign tourists seeking cosmetic surgery -- capitalising on the popularity of the "Korean Wave" of pop culture in Asia in recent years.
"If parliament approves revised regulations, we will actively support a tour programme for skincare and cosmetic surgery," a city tourism bureau official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The city plans to provide multilingual counselling staff and introduce cosmetic surgeons or dermatologists to tourists.
Business is already growing.
Official data showed hospitals affiliated with the CKMP received some 16,000 foreign patients in 2007 compared to just 750 in 2005. Nationwide figures were not available.
"If we achieve the goal of attracting 100,000 foreign patients by 2012, (annual) earnings from medical tourism may reach an estimated 200 billion won (199 million dollars)," CKMP secretary general Jang Kyung-Won said in a recent television interview.
He said Singapore, Thailand and India have been leading Asia's medical tourism market.
"But the level of our medical technology is higher. We can lead the sector in the future," he said, citing what he called South Korea's high-quality service in plastic surgery, spinal diseases, stomach cancer surgery and laser treatment to correct short sight.
The council has held overseas expositions and developed medical tourism packages in partnership with travel agencies.
Jang said plastic surgery would play a crucial role.
Cosmetic surgery is commonplace in South Korea. A Kyung Hee University survey in 2007 found that 47.3 percent of adults had experienced it.
Nearly eight out 10 Korean women believe it is necessary to improve their looks in an society which focuses on personal appearance, the survey said.
Many young women consult plastic surgeons to boost chances of getting a job. Parents offer cosmetic surgery as a graduation or birthday gift for children.
"We are the best in Asia in aesthetic treatment," said Yoon Eul-Sik, a Korea University Hospital professor and manager of the Korean Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons.
"South Korean plastic surgeons are well known abroad for abundant experience and expertise."
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