Seek out beauty, take in the beasts
By Nicol Degli Innocenti Aug 01, 2003
If you have a friend who comes back from a holiday in South Africa looking great, be suspicious.
That smooth complexion and radiant smile might well be due to the benefits of a few weeks' rest in a country blessed with a wealth of unspoilt natural beauty.
But chances are that pristine beaches and roaring lions cannot take all the credit for your friend's youthful appearance. It could be yet another case of a "scalpel safari", an increasingly popular combination of cosmetic surgery and holiday in the bush, also dubbed "beauty and the beasts".
The idea is to combine South Africa's high standards of medical care with its attractiveness as a tourist destination. Hundreds of "medical tourists" - women and men - flock there every year on packages that marry plastic surgery at a luxury clinic with a safari or beach holiday spent gazing at Table Mountain.
A couple of weeks later, scars faded and bruises vanished, the younger-looking tourists can return home and lie to friends about the rejuvenating benefits of a holiday in the sun.
Some 80 per cent of them are from the UK, as historical connections mean that the British are more familiar with this English-speaking, Commonwealth country. The rest come from the US, Germany, the Netherlands and even Australia.
Most popular are facelifts and liposuction, but tummy-tucks, eyelid surgery, breast augmentation or reduction and laser skin resurfacing are also available.
Lorraine Melvill spotted the opportunity a couple of years ago, when she happened to arrange a facelift for a friend from overseas. She then decided to set up a company, appropriately called "Surgeon & Safari", which offers tailor-made cosmetic surgery and recuperation packages.
Its mission statement is "Privacy in Paradise": it works only with registered surgeons and has teamed up with the Orient Express Group to offer "recuperation and rejuvenation" packages in five-star hotels, luxury game lodges or the famous Blue Train, which crosses South Africa in style.
Surgeon & Safari has slowly expanded, relying mainly on word of mouth. The real boom came in 2001, when the rand's 40 per cent plunge against the dollar made South Africa just about the cheapest country in the world. "Every time the rand reached a new low, I screamed with joy," Melvill says. "In the last six months of 2001 business doubled."
But she adds: "Our services are not cheap. They are value for money. There is a big difference. Our medical skills and facilities are world-class and we will not compromise on quality".
The rand has strengthened against the dollar and the pound since but business has not been affected, partly because South Africa is still much cheaper and medical costs elsewhere have been spiralling.
"A facelift costs anything between £5,000 and £10,000 in the UK and $20,000 in the US," says Melvill. "Here, the operation, performed by a Harley Street-quality surgeon, costs £3,300. The top-of-the-range package, including flights, transfers, two weeks all-inclusive accommodation in a five-star hotel and a full-time personal assistant costs £2,600 [on top of the medical costs]."
Surgeon & Safari's success has led to other companies jumping on the bandwagon, with names such as "Health Hopper Holidays" and "Surgical Adventures". The Association of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons of South Africa recommends that patients choose only surgeons who are accredited members. Beware of some doctors who tout cheap services on their own websites, complete with reassuring before-and-after images.
"If you compare reputable organisations and well-qualified surgeons, South Africa costs half of what it would in the UK or the US," says Lavinia Sonnenberg, operations manager at Netcare International, which has 43 hospitals in the country.
Both Netcare and Surgeon & Safari have opened offices in the UK. "It offers great reassurance value for some clients who are not comfortable with e-mail or the internet," Ms Melvill says. "Nothing can replace face to face consultation."
Some potential clients are also daunted by the idea of a 10- or 11-hour flight followed by surgery in unfamiliar surroundings, away from friends and family. But for others, South Africa's remoteness is a distinct advantage. It means they never have to admit to having had an operation at all.
"My patients treasure the anonymity South Africa affords," says Dr Lionel Jedeikin, a Cape Town-based plastic surgeon who travels to London every three months to check on his old patients and meet new ones. "I go through every aspect and possible complication of the procedure so that they feel secure. Foreign patients are now 50 per cent of my practice, but I expect their numbers to keep growing."
Peter Menelaou, general manager of MediTravel International, part of the MediClinic Corporation, says dental treatment, orthopaedic surgery and heart by-pass operations are also becoming popular.
After all, South Africa's reputation for medical excellence was established 36 years ago when Christiaan Barnard performed the first-ever heart transplant operation. But prices are low and waiting lists mercifully short. A hip-replacement operation costs more than £8,000 in the UK but less than £5,000 here, including all-inclusive accommodation, and can be booked a few weeks in advance.