First Liposuction, Then Lions
Low-Cost Plastic Surgery Draws Tourists to South Africa
By Jon Jeter Washington Post Foreign Service Saturday, June 8, 2002
JOHANNESBURG -- The surgeon’s scalpel had left Peter Kaufman’s face swollen and his midsection sore, but his spirits were high as he sipped orange juice and downed scrambled eggs by the hotel’s glistening pool.
The operation had gone well, and for less than half what it would have cost him back home in Dallas, Kaufman had parted with his jowls and his love handles. Now it was on to the South African bush, where Kaufman’s telltale scars could heal far from his neighbors and co-workers’ accusatory stares, his secret safe with the safari guide and any elephants or rhinos he came across.
“I made the decision that by my 50th birthday I was going to reclaim my life,” Kaufman said. “I really wanted to have a facelift, but it’s so incredibly expensive in the States. Here I can get everything I want done, go on safari, [and] spend three weeks recuperating for the same price as just the surgical procedure back home. The swelling will be down by the time I return, so I can go back as a new person and it won’t look so obvious. And I feel safer here than I do in the U.S. right now. This is just ideal.”
Kaufman needed to get his groove back and headed east, here to South Africa, where the plastic surgeons are first-rate, the animals are exotic and the dollar goes a long way. The odd combination of lions and liposuction are at the center of this country’s growing “medical tourism” industry, which has in turn helped fuel a surge in international travel here since Sept. 11.
“We tell them to come for the surgery,” said Lionel Jedeikin, a Cape Town physician who specializes in breasts and chins. “Stay for the scenery.”
Nearly 19,000 more tourists visited South Africa in January than did a year earlier, and travel agents, hotel managers, car rental agencies and restaurants have all reported dramatic increases in business since the end of last year.
Visitors from Europe account for the bulk of the increase; overseas arrivals from Britain and Germany have risen by more than 14 percent this year. Arrivals from the United States were climbing last year until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks discouraged overseas travel. Still, the 2 percent overall decline in American visits to South Africa in the aftermath of Sept. 11 has been slight compared with the nearly 25 percent decrease in U.S. visitors to countries in East Africa.
South Africa was largely scorned by tourists when its white minority ruled through the oppressive system of apartheid, but its fortunes changed when a black-led government took office in 1994 eager to attract cash from overseas.
The country’s reputation for carjackings, rape and other violent crime discouraged tourism in the new South Africa, but tourism officials say that last year’s terrorist attack on the United States did what police and public relations could not: dispel South Africa’s image as unsafe.
“We had been saying for years that South Africa was really a safe place and that visitors from overseas were statistically in no more danger here than they were back in their home countries,” said Phindile Makwakwa, a spokeswoman for Tourism Minister Valli Moosa. “But it was like the world woke up September 12th and heard us for the first time. We’re seeing more foreign tourists, as well as our own domestic tourists, who are now leery of traveling abroad.”
Recognizing that South Africa was uniquely qualified to capitalize on a niche market, Lorraine Melvill started her company, Surgery and Safari, two years ago. Working with local plastic surgeons, she put up a Web site and now organizes vacation packages and surgical consultations for five or six well-off professionals from the United States and Europe each week. Several competitors have followed.
“I knew we had fantastic surgeons and an exchange rate that was only going to get better for anyone with dollars,” said Melvill, a former marketing executive. “I wanted to share Africa with the world, and this just seemed the perfect fit.”
South Africa has sub-Saharan Africa’s most industrialized economy. South African doctors, often educated abroad, are widely regarded as among the world’s finest -- South African Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first successful human heart transplant in 1967 -- and many of the safari camps that ring Kruger National Park are the equivalent of four- and five-star hotels in the bush, offering customers single-malt Scotch, manicures and gourmet meals.
Moreover, South Africa’s currency, the rand, lost more than a third of its value last year, partly because of civil unrest and political instability in neighboring Zimbabwe. Trading at roughly 6 to the U.S. dollar when Nelson Mandela stepped down in 1999 as the country’s first democratically elected president, the rand fell below 12 to the dollar in December before gradually rebounding. It now trades at about 10 to the dollar, but South Africa remains one of only two places in the world where a Big Mac costs less than a dollar, according to the Economist, a British magazine.
Price is what initially piqued the interest of Regina Housley of Southern California. Forty-seven and divorced, the graying biologist was beginning to notice loose shards of fat on her legs and arms -- “I had batwings” -- but couldn’t bring herself to spend the $10,000 that a surgeon back home estimated it would cost for a facelift and liposuction.
Housley read about Melvill’s company in a travel magazine and went online to do research. She picked up the phone. Melvill put her in touch with a cosmetic surgeon here and Housley e-mailed him some photographs of herself.
For about $11,000, Housley got the facelift and liposuction she wanted, plus airfare, two days on safari and nearly a week of shopping and relaxation, all the while staying at one of Johannesburg’s most exclusive hotels.
“It was all first-rate,” she said while sitting in the hotel bar here recently, showing off the bruising that she was confident would heal before she returned. “I’m a little sore, but overall I feel great. The doctors really took their time and explained everything to me, and Lorraine caters to your every need. I’m really looking forward to going home. I really want to wear a swimsuit this summer.”
Jedeikin, the Cape Town surgeon, said that 50 percent of his patients are from abroad now, compared with less than 10 percent four years ago. “It used to be mainly women, but we’re seeing a lot more men now,” Jedeikin said. He said he had just smoothed the wrinkles and strengthened the chin of a Colorado banker for about half of what it would have cost in the United States.
“The quality of work is just as good, but the one advantage we have over the U.S. is the exchange rate,” he said.
A buyer for a major department store, Kaufman decided to travel to South Africa for his touch-up after a friend reminded him that the first successful heart transplant was performed in Cape Town.
About to turn 50, Kaufman had love handles that he just didn’t think he could get rid of by exercising, and loose folds of skin around his neck that bothered him every time he looked in a mirror.
“Everybody said it looked okay, but of course that didn’t matter,” he said. “I didn’t think it looked okay. I decided I really wanted to do this.”
And so he did, spending nearly two weeks in southern Africa after his surgery, traveling to Cape Town in a luxurious colonial-era train, discovering a great merlot in the wine lands, standing at the edge of Victoria Falls, staring at a lion so close he swore he could feel its breath.
“I did all that for just a few thousand dollars more than what the facelift alone would have cost me in the States,” he said, beaming like a lottery winner as a hotel waiter poured him another glass of orange juice.
“And when I go back home,” he said between sips, “I’ll have my mojo back.”
© 2002 The Washington Post Company