South Korea does not have the same volume of foreign tourists as Japan, China or many southeast Asian nations. But the government hopes to attract more Asian visitors thanks to high-quality medical care.
The South Korean government wants to attract more foreign tourists to Seoul
The Korea Tourism Organisation has produced a television ad to attract visitors from other Asian countries.
It shows off some scenic landscapes as well as cityscapes, with shots of speeding trains and glimpses of Seoul’s nightlife.
The ad’s tagline -- “Korea Sparkling” -- is delivered by one of the most well-known pop stars in East Asia, South Korean singer Rain.
Promoting medical tourism
But there’s another fledgling sector of tourism here that this commercial doesn’t advertise for -- medical tourism.
South Korea is becoming an increasingly popular destination for other East Asians to seek treatment, which the government wants to cash in on.
It is providing funding for the Council for Korea Medicine Overseas Promotion, which acts as a middle-man between local hospitals and foreign patients and insurance companies.
James Bae, a researcher with the Council, says Korea has a better medical infrastructure than other nations: “We really try to differentiate ourselves from other Asian countries for medical tourism with our high level of quality for healthcare services.”
Attracted to cosmetic surgeons
He says that so far this year, 20,000 foreign nationals have visited hospitals associated with the council. Not all of them were unwell -- many came for plastic surgery.
South Korea, where an estimated 60 percent of women in their 20s have undergone some sort of cosmetic operation, has earned a reputation for producing surgically-enhanced Asian beauties.
And that’s why Doctor Lee Sang Jun, who runs several plastic surgery clinics in Seoul, says he’s seen an increase in Japanese, Chinese and southeast Asian customers in recent years.
“Europe and America also have a high grade of service,” he says, “but they are Caucasians so it’s better for Asian patients to come to Korea and have surgery done.”
Lee adds that face lifts are the most popular procedure and credits the Korean media for helping out the cosmetic surgery industry.
“One reason why Korean people are known for being beautiful is because of the popularity of Korean dramas throughout East Asia,” he adds. “They have created a trend and people will pay higher prices for this high-quality service here, compared to what they can get in other countries.”
Overcoming legal restrictions
It could soon become a lot easier for Korea to attract more medical tourists.
Legislation that would allow Korean hospitals to advertise directly to overseas patients and avoid going through travel agencies is currently under review.
“At this point, it is not legal -- it is prohibited -- to attract patients. The amendment from the Ministry of Heath is in Congress right now -- to make an exception to attract international patients,” says James Bae from the Council for Korea Medicine Overseas Promotion.