x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Lebanon - land of cedars and facelifts

Plastic surgery in Beirut is discreet, reliable and cheaper than in the West, and it is attracting a growing number of Gulf customers.

Zeina El Haj sells cosmetic surgery tours to Lebanon. She says business this summer has been spectacular.
Zeina El Haj sells cosmetic surgery tours to Lebanon. She says business this summer has been spectacular.

DUBAI // Even in a downturn, Lebanon is a tourist magnet. But recently, on top of the usual sightseers, an increasing number of visitors from the Gulf and elsewhere are going to Lebanon for an entirely different kind of holiday, one that involves a private (and cheaper) nip and tuck.

Seeing an opportunity in this growing trend, Zeina El Haj, a Lebanese businesswoman living in Dubai, last month launched Image Concept, a company that encourages "cosmetic tourism" to Lebanon, where plastic surgery has become commonplace. "Today, if you go to any beach in Lebanon, people are boasting about their surgery," said Dr Elias Chammas, medical director of the Hazmieh International Medical Centre in Beirut.

"There will be at least five people with plasters on their noses in any given restaurant. "It is now accepted; friends tell others about what they did and whom they recommend for what - unlike in the Gulf, where they do not speak about it." As a result, people from the Gulf go to Lebanon for the discretion offered by surgeons with a reputation for being the best in the region, as well as the chance to recover in a place where no one knows them.

"They come here, enjoy the scenery, have a facelift or nose job, and go home with no plasters," said Dr Chammas. "If they did it back at home, they would have to go out with plasters on their faces and it wouldn't be as accepted." This aspect has not been missed by Ms El Haj, who prides herself on offering a degree of privacy not normally available at home. Her company provides its clients with surgery and recovery time away from prying eyes and idle gossip.

"The patients don't have to worry about a thing," said Ms El Haj. "Everything, from the hospital to the transport to the accommodation, is all organised by us. It is the perfect time for them to get their surgery done and relax." The practice of travelling to Lebanon for surgery is not new, but there has been a surge over the past year. Dr Chammas said his centre alone performed on average about six operations a day, a number that doubled during the summer with the arrival of clients from the Gulf.

He attributed the trend to the improved political situation in Lebanon as well as an increase in demand for cosmetic surgery. And with prices ranging between US$3,000 and $5,000 (Dh11,000 to Dh18,400) for a nose job in comparison with the $10,000 it would cost for the same operation in the US or EU, the market for cosmetic tourism in the Middle East is certainly lucrative. "People are more likely to get this type of surgery done in Lebanon than in Europe because geographically it is close to the Gulf, it is half the price of Europe, and it is an Arab country so they feel more at home," said Ms El Haj.

"Importantly, too, there is more privacy as they are not in their normal social circle so it makes it more relaxing." Since its launch a month ago, Image Concept says it has been receiving daily enquiries, not only from within the UAE, but also from neighbouring countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. And although the Gulf is still relatively conservative, Ms El Haj believes exposure to international culture is making the younger generation more open to having cosmetic surgery. The most popular operations tend to be requested by people seeking to lose weight or to make facial changes such as nose jobs.

"Our clients are mainly between the ages of 25 and 45, but there are the occasional teenagers too," Ms El Haj said. Image Concept has already won official recognition from the Lebanese ministry of tourism. "Cosmetic tourism is a widely recognised and appreciated concept, and we are very hopeful that this initiative will contribute to our economy," said Nada Sardouk, the director general of the ministry.

Dr Sanaj Parshar, a surgeon at the Dubai Cosmetic Surgery Centre, is not worried that the trend may lead to a reduction in local business. "I have heard of people travelling to Lebanon for cosmetic surgery, but I don't feel it detracts from the market here," he said. "There is a psychological status with some people to travel abroad to get surgery done, and those people always prefer to travel. But there will also be the people who wish to remain in a familiar environment."

Demand for cosmetic surgery keeps increasing, not just in the Middle East, but all over the world. Research by the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons found that the number of cosmetic surgical procedures in the UK alone last year exceeded 34,100, which was more than triple the 10,700 performed in 2003. The association does give warnings about lower standards and botched procedures in some countries offering cosmetic tourism, but Lebanon is not one of those.

Dr Foad Nahai, the president of the US-based International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, said the rise in cosmetic tourism was a matter of economics. "Yes, the cosmetic tourism is growing very rapidly based on the desire of individuals in countries where health care is expensive, who wish to travel to countries where it is less expensive." nsamaha@thenational.ae