As affluent Chinese travelers flood into to South Korea, they’re not just heading to malls, duty-free shops, and famous sites on their trips: many are also paying visits to local doctors for a checkup—or more often, plastic surgery.
Demand for both leisure and medical tourism in South Korea is on the rise among Chinese tourists, and many are opting to combine both types of travel in the same trip. With the view that South Korean medical care is superior to what they can receive in China, some are heading to routine checkups in between shopping and sightseeing, while others receive major plastic surgery procedures and tour the country in the weeks it takes to recover.
“They try to go everywhere in Korea,” says Kim Sang Wu, the CEO of Korean B2B medical service platform Medi & Korea, which specializes in help Chinese tour operators find quality Korean cosmetic and medical clinics for their clients. “They stay here in Korea for two, three, or four weeks to get medical service, and also, they want to tour Korea and shop.”
Wary of quality issues with China’s medical services, wealthy Chinese citizens have been heading to countries across the world to receive treatment that they deem superior. “There are not many good doctors in China,” explains Kim, who states that South Korea is growing in popularity for Chinese medical tourists in relation to popular destinations such as Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, North America, and Europe, where medical care or travel is comparatively expensive.
“The market is growing very fast,” says Kim. “Our target market is actually the upper-middle class—not very high-level—because very high-level Chinese patients go to America; go to Europe. But the upper-middle class doesn’t have that much money, so they find service that is cheaper but good. In that case, they come to Korea.”
As Chinese clients increasingly request that tour operators assist with medical tourism for all-in-one leisure and medical vacations, travel companies can log onto the Medi & Korea platform to gain information about and book appointments with the country’s top doctors and plastic surgeons.
Out of all of the types of treatment booked through Medi & Korea, Kim says that plastic surgery is by far the most popular for Chinese clients. Popular procedures include “double eyelid” surgery, chin lengthening, nose jobs, and breast enhancement. Kim says that the Chaum Center in the affluent Seoul neighborhood Cheongdam-dong is especially popular with Chinese visitors. Since Medi & Korea contracts with a medical insurance company, the platform is also increasingly being used by tour operators helping Chinese clients to avoid a burgeoning industry of illegal, unlicensed plastic surgery practices in South Korea that prey upon unwitting travelers.
The growing popularity of South Korea for plastic surgery among Chinese travelers is due not only to the price, but also to China’s obsession with Korean pop culture. The fascination, known as hallyu (“Korean Wave”) in Korean, is prompting many Chinese customers to bring in pictures of their favorite Korean celebrities to plastic surgery clinics.
They’re also seeking out the plastic surgeons frequented by their favorite K-pop stars. According to Kim, tour operators rely on his company to figure out which clinics are frequented by Korean celebrities. “Let’s say one Korean celebrity gets service at a specific hospital. We get that information and give it to Chinese patients. They say, ‘That celebrity gets service in that hospital—okay, I will go to that hospital.’”
“Recently, Korean soap operas, movies, and music have been very famous and popular in China,” says Kim. “They try to enjoy Korean culture and medical service, and they don’t think about those things separately.”
In addition to the hallyu craze, South Korea and China both have strong and growing demand for plastic surgery services due to the heavy cultural pressure of “lookism,” or preferential treatment based on appearance, says Kim. South Korea is estimated by some to have the highest per capita rate of plastic surgery in the world, and China is catching up as incomes rise. In both countries, looks are often associated with not only romantic, but financial success—for example, photos are often required to be submitted with job applications.
This emphasis on looks doesn’t stop Chinese plastic surgery tourists from hitting up Seoul’s duty-free shops and department stores with bandages on their faces after their procedures. They aren’t shy about being seen in public while recovering from their surgeries, says Kim, making plastic surgery tourism a lucrative industry for local retailers. “They even go to department stores to shop. Maybe in China, they would feel a little uncomfortable, but here in Korea, they’re in another country. People don’t know them, so they don’t care. They feel comfortable.”
While Chinese medical tourists’ favorite activities in South Korea are shopping and sightseeing, companies are also working to encourage investment purchases such as Korean art on their trips. Kim also serves as CEO of Brodin Asset Management, an arts and entertainment group that reaches out to Chinese art collectors. “When they come to Korea to check their health condition and receive anti-aging services,” Kim says that for their free time, “we offer our Korean traditional art and Korean fine art; we introduce our artists to them.” He states that the art management and medical tourism industries have synergy when it comes to appealing to Chinese tourists, since “it’s the same target market. The same people that want medical service want art too.”
According to Kim, Chinese interest in these trips is already huge, and the biggest challenge for the future will be accommodating surging demand. “Chinese travel agencies are so big,” he says. “They always ask, ‘We have lots of people; can you handle [the group size]?” If China’s emphasis on looks remains strong as incomes grow, the industry may have more business than it can handle in the coming years.