A growing number of men from Arab countries and Europe are asking doctors in Turkey to fill out thin beards, moustaches and main hair with transplants.
Baldness cure sends men flocking to Turkey
ISTANBUL // Tarik travelled to Istanbul from his home in Abu Dhabi to solve a very personal problem. The 28-year-old asked a doctor in Istanbul to restore his main hair that had become thin because of premature hair loss.
"In one or two months from now, there will be no problem anymore," Tarik said after receiving a hair transplant in Istanbul this month. "The operation took three days, but I am very happy with the result," he added, sounding jubilant.
Tarik is not alone. A growing number of men from Arab countries as well as from Europe are asking doctors in Turkey to fill out thin beards, moustaches and main hair with transplants. Turkey's thriving health tourism industry offers a combination of high-quality treatment, reasonable prices and the attraction of a popular tourist destination, doctors and patients say.
Irfan Atik, a Turkish tour operator who specialises in arranging visits by patients from abroad for hair transplants in Turkey and who brought Tarik to Istanbul, said many Arabs preferred Turkey because the country did not feel foreign to them.
"This is a Muslim country, they feel at ease here, they feel at home and not like foreigners," Mr Atik said. He said he started organising the visits for people seeking hair transplants two years ago when he realised, in his work as a travel agent, that a growing number of his clients were looking for hair treatment.
In the procedure, hairs from the back of the head are taken with their roots and planted on the upper part of the patient's head, cheeks, chin or over his upper lip. A full hair transplant can take days, whereas transplants to strengthen beard or moustaches can be done in several hours.
Selahattin Tulunay, a Turkish plastic surgeon in Istanbul who offers hair treatment and has many foreign patients, said men had many reasons to look for good-quality hair transplants.
"Some say they are not taken seriously at work," he said in his office in the upscale Nisantasi neighbourhood on Istanbul's European side.
There are no official statistics of how many foreigners come to Turkey for hair transplants, which cost €2,000 to 4,000 (DH 9,500 to 19,000), but Dr Tulunay said demand from Arab patients, most of whom contact him via the internet, had been rising sharply for about a year.
"On average, there are about 50 Arabs seeking hair treatment arriving in Istanbul every day," he estimated.
"We offer good quality and good prices," he said. "They come here, stay for four days or a week, do a little sightseeing and go home again."
Dr Tulunay dismissed as untrue Turkish press reports about eager Arab patients showing up at Turkish hair transplant clinics with pictures of Ibrahim Tatlises, a prominent Turkish singer with a trademark shiny-black moustache, in their hands. "The media have been exaggerating," he said.
"It's not a macho-problem, it's a real need. I have had grown men in here crying."
Mr Atik, the tour operator, said some younger clients wanted to improve their chances of finding a wife. For others, it was a matter of self-confidence. "When you look into the mirror in the morning, you want to like what you see," he said.
Hair was an important part of a person's personality and appearance, Mr Atik said. "Why do you comb your hair in the morning?" He said 99 per cent of his patients were looking for transplants to fill up their main hair, and only a few people came because of beards or moustaches.
Mr Atik said the choice of the right doctor was crucial. "Trust is very important," he said.
Many patients are reluctant to talk about their hair problem in public. Tarik, the 28 year old man from Abu Dhabi, agreed to be interviewed by telephone only and would give only his first name. Dr Tulunay quoted one patient as saying he "looked like a child" because a lack of facial hair.
Dr Tulunay said trust in Turkey's health sector had built up over years.
"A few years ago, people were worried about whether it would really help them," he said about hair transplants. "But with the latest developments in technology, results are wonderful."
The Association of Health Tourism, a business pressure group, says around 400,000 foreigners seeking medical and wellness treatments in clinics and spas are expected in Turkey this year, up from 100,000 two years ago.
Turkey's health tourism industry includes package tours for eye and dental operations as well as plastic surgery. The Association of Health Tourism estimates that the country can earn up to $10bn a year by attracting foreign patients.
In a move designed to boost the sector, Turkey lifted a ban on the employment of foreign doctors and health workers earlier this year. So far, 158 foreign doctors have received permission to practise in Turkey, according to government figures quoted by news reports.