The Orthodontal Tourist
Dentists in far-flung destinations are giving British holidaymakers something to smile about,says Ellen Himelfarb
How does the song go? "I'd walk a million miles for one of your smiles"? Ah, but how far would you travel to buy not just a new smile, but a whole new mouth - or, at the very least, a crown, a filling or a smart porcelain veneer? Perhaps not a million miles, but certainly to New York, Thailand, the Caribbean or any of the other destinations increasingly patronised by holidaymakers with famously bad British teeth.
Travelling abroad for a nip and a tuck here, an implant or a Botox jab there - and combining the surgery with a recuperative spell on the beach - is now well established. Dental tourism, however, is the latest thing, with more and more travellers offsetting the misery of chair, drill and "open wide" by shopping, sunbathing and sightseeing while recovering feeling in Novocaine-numbed mouths.
Tooth-led tourism was pioneered in New York, most famously by Martin Amis in the mid-1990s, since when the city's dentists have been telling orally challenged celebs such as Sophie Dahl and Kate Moss that "this really won't hurt at all". Where visitors used to schedule a massage and facial between trips to Barney's, they now squeeze in some face-changing time with Marc Lowenberg or Gregg Lituchy at their clinic overlooking Central Park.
The duo has wiped the crooked smiles off the faces of Keith Richards, Bryan Ferry, Iggy Pop, Cindy Crawford and many others. But they also do a swift "civilian" business. On average, Lowenberg treats two Britons a week, who typically venture over for a "smile makeover", a Broadway matinee and a week at the five-star Mandarin Oriental across the street.
The team has examined enough famous teeth to recognise what makes a smile sexy. If you want the deliberately disproportionate teeth of Claudia Schiffer, or the wide, full arch of Whitney Houston, your set will be tweaked with those slight, sweet imperfections.
The makeover takes about a week and requires two visits. "With foreign patients, we get them to send us X-rays first to make sure their teeth are healthy, and a photo of their smile so we know what has to be done to improve it," says Lowenberg.
Bleaching, bonding, porcelain veneers and cosmetic contouring (reshaping chipped teeth) are Lowenberg and Lituchy's headline services. Veneers cost £1,135 per tooth, with frills such as massage and reflexology thrown in.
Across the country in Los Angeles, Dr David Frey calls his travellers' treatments a "care package". Sign up for services at his Beverly Hills boutique and he'll ask you to send over moulds, photos, X-rays and a wax gum chart from a local dentist. Once you've been whisked by a staff driver to your LA abode, reserved by Frey's office ("Red carpet treatment for all our guests," he says), you'll be chauffeured to the clinic.
Unsurprisingly, given that Beverly Hills is the world's plastic surgery capital, Frey offers what he calls a "scalpel-less facelift", a repositioning of the teeth to encourage the skin in directions that make you look younger and healthier. Equally unsurprising is the terrifying price tag - £22,000.
By contrast, a "smile" chez Frey - defined as porcelain veneers extending up to 10 teeth wide - will set you back between £6,300 and £8,200. Exclusivity, Frey insists, is factored into the price. Whereas other dentists swing casually from one examination room to the other, Frey takes his time. "One patient at a time: or, to be exact, one patient a day."
But while the United States is a perfect dental destination - it is, after all, the world headquarters for cosmetic dentistry (indeed, cosmetic anything) - what about places that you might not immediately associate with gleaming surgeries and state-of-the-art drills? What, for example, about Thailand?
If the thought of going under the drill there doesn't inspire confidence, consider the fact that the Thai government recently made a play for the medical tourism trade with hugely increased funding for its health services on the resort island of Phuket.
One of the lucky recipients of its largesse, Bangkok Phuket Hospital, already provides interpreters in 15 languages and receives about 20,000 international patients a year. Its dentists - who have, for years, been treating regulars from America and Europe alike - have enthusiastically embracing the sophisticated methods of the New World.
If you've made it a rule not to submit to surgery where you can't call for painkillers in the native tongue, then visit the Phuket Dental Care Clinic's website (www.phuketdentalclinic.com) for its blissful testimonials in French, Norwegian and German. You won't get the Beverly Hills star treatment here, but neither will you pay Beverly Hills prices - whitening costs between £115 and £175, porcelain crowns £190 per tooth and cosmetic fillings between £22 and £65 - in the clinic's new Patong Beach sanctuary. Its head, Dr Worranuch Karnkorkul, says half his patients are tourists who bank on his good deals to offset - or justify - the expense of the holiday.
Contact the tourism boards of Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary, Cuba and Costa Rica (where dozens of dentists have outposts in the volcanic hills surrounding San Jose) and you'll net a portfolio of similar tooth fairies eager to treat foreigners at keen prices.
Most tempting among these is Cuba, where Havana's lavish La Pradera International Health Center capitalises on Cuba's stellar health care reputation with private rooms, personal cooks, satellite TV, swimming, tennis and a concierge service for foreigners at cut-rate prices.
A helicopter ride away, Antigua Smiles, a company with dental centres in all the Caribbean island's major resorts, caters to a patient base that includes British and European visitors to smart hotels and rented villas and yachts. Aware that its clientele is used to pampering, it will even supply the luxury villa and provide taxi transfers from air and sea ports before administering the gas.
As a dental tourist, you might not wow dinner-party guests with your holiday snaps - never mind that death, disease and dentistry should be proscribed dinner-party topics - but that doesn't mean you won't have some unusual holiday highlights with which to regale friends. For nouveaux dentistes, seeking to escape the stereotype of the humourless, weapon-wielding white-coat, have brushed up on their foreign hospitality. Even the cosmetic variety, normally one-visit wonders, have found the key to encouraging repeat travel business.
Sign on for a week or two with Afrisurge in South Africa, for example, and you'll be wheeled through spas, luxury bush camps and game parks en route to the dentist's chair. The founder, Joyce Brink, will collect you from Johannesburg International Airport, escort you to your in-town suite and then conduct you to the Eden Dental Studio. After treatment, you'll be whisked like royalty to the lodge of your choice where you'll begin your "recuperating holiday".
"We cater for safaris and game viewing," says Brink. "And if family members are along, we arrange games of golf, shopping sprees and any other requirements." Prices vary, though most procedures cost half as much as Harley Street or other private dentists - the majority of Afrisurge clients are from the UK - while Brink "recovery journeys" can be tailored to a variety of budgets.
Surgeon & Safari, a trailblazing operator of cosmetic-surgery "scalpel safaris", performs "spontaneous" dental makeovers on one in five of British customers who sign up for plastic surgery but then also opt for porcelain veneers and other treatments. Its prices, like its South African location, hover between America and Asia, with veneers at £200 per tooth and crowns at £400 each.
"Our pricing is the cherry on top," claims the founder, Lorraine Melvill, who has an emissary in London to provide consultations. Additional toppings are no less delicious: pampered recuperation at five-star hotels in Johannesburg or Cape Town, also available to the "friend from home" you bring along for moral support.
Such gimmicks, though exclusive, are not exclusive to South Africa. Dr Michael Iott, a Manhattan dentist who tackled the teeth of Martina Navratilova (he replaced all her chunky gold fillings), tempts foreign clients with a feng shui-friendly surgery and digital morphing that matches your image with the smile of your choice on-screen. For the record, the most sought-after "new" smiles in the US belong to Julia Roberts, Halle Berry and Jennifer Lopez, while for men it's Tom Cruise, George Clooney and Will Smith.
If Iott's Brunschwig & Fils wallpaper, Chippendale furniture and baroque fixtures don't distract you from the needle, you'll be invited to share in an after-procedure brandy, sipped (or should that be dribbled?) from crystal goblets.
A trip to the office/resort of Dr Wynn H Okuda, near Waikiki, Hawaii, is still more decadent. Okuda advertises a Smile Vacation, comprising sun, surf and an "aesthetic tour program" of limousine transportation, massages, facials, films (a staple of the luxury dental office), local water sports, golfing and hiking. Oh, and somewhere in between you'll want to sit in the reclining chair at his Dental Day Spa, launched last summer.
Patients come from as far afield as Tokyo and Moscow - and no wonder, for there aren't many places you can stagger from surgery to surf in a matter of minutes. And not many places where pain and price can be forgotten in a whirl of sunshine and exotic cocktails. Now if that isn't cause for a smile, what is?
Report filed: 11/02/2003