July 29, 2001
In South Africa, Surgery Tours Offer Beauty and the Beasts
By Ann M. Simmons, Times staff writer
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Dotti Ramos came to this southern African nation looking for a face lift and some face time--with a lion. By taking a trend-setting "scalpel safari," she's getting both. The California civil servant and mother of two was tired of looking tired, and she wanted a holiday break that wouldn't break the bank. So when she learned of a South African package tour that offered surgery, wildlife expeditions and pampering at a five-star hotel--all for almost less than the price of just one surgical procedure in the United States--Ramos couldn't resist.
"It just sounded like an adventure and something I wanted to do," said Ramos, 52, a Vacaville resident who had been considering plastic surgery for three years and had long dreamed about coming to Africa on safari. Her wish, and that of scores of other non-South Africans, is being fulfilled because of a growing trend in this country's package holiday industry that takes advantage of well-trained doctors, an abundance of exotic game and an exchange rate that favours those with dollars.
Those in the business call it "medical tourism," and South African vacation and marketing specialists--backed by doctors--are carving out an unusual niche.
Promoters say the scalpel safaris are an ideal way to publicize some of the best South Africa has to offer. At a time when land invasions, political unrest and a general increase in urban crime have struck fear into the hearts of many would-be travellers to southern Africa, officials here say they welcome any kind of positive exposure for their country.
Although security may be a concern, scalpel tourists are usually kept in a safe and exclusive environment. "Our government has quietly identified tourism as one of the key sectors of the economy, and we've put quite a lot of effort into ensuring its growth and development," said J.P. Louw, director of communications for the Environmental Affairs and Tourism Ministry. "And we can say with confidence that it is beginning to pay off."
Louw added that whether they come for a face lift or a conference, the aim is to encourage visitors to South Africa to stay longer and make the most of their trip.
Ramos came to town for a face lift, surgery on her eyelids, laser surgery around the mouth, liposuction and a full tummy tuck. Her medical holiday was organized by Surgery & Safari, a company set up in August by South African marketing executive Lorraine Melvill.
"I knew we had an exchange rate that was not going to improve" in South Africa's favour, said Melvill, 43, who says she has served at least 10 overseas clients each month since starting her business and gets as many as 40 inquiries a day from potential customers. "I knew we had fantastic surgeons. So it seemed like a great idea."
Doctors See Huge Potential for Growth
The Assn. of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons of South Africa prohibits its members from advertising their services directly to patients. But this hasn't deterred some surgeons from hawking their services in an attempt to capture a piece of the medical safari market, which many doctors here believe has enormous potential for growth.
Angela Swanepoel and her surgeon husband, Pieter, offer nose jobs through advertisements in South African Airlines' in-flight magazine. Dirk Lazarus, a Cape Town-based surgeon, coaxes clients through his Web site to "come for the surgery, stay for the scenery."
Melvill's Web site features the resumes of her top four surgeons, along with pictures of an elephant, a steam train and several of the country's most exclusive hotels.
"It's good for the country, and it's good for me," said Rick van der Poel, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, who performed Ramos' operations and says he treats at least eight tourists a month. "It's a great concept. It brings in people who would never have thought of coming to South Africa. But you do have to be a bit adventurous. Not your average person would travel all the way to Africa to have an operation."
Melvill's clients, who are all foreigners and predominantly women, come mainly in search of re-sculpted faces, redefined eyes, flatter stomachs and a reduction in fatty tissue. Their ages have ranged from 26 to 66, she said.
"I just think people are on a treadmill, and cosmetic surgery is kind of external rejuvenation," Melvill said. Ramos, a pale-skinned, bespectacled woman, said the gradual wrinkling around her eyes and her constantly fatigued appearance--even after a good night's sleep--prompted her to go under the knife.
And for such a great price--the South African rand currently trades at about eight to the dollar--there appeared to be nothing to lose.
Ramos' two-week package, including her surgical procedures, pre- and post-operation consultations, recuperation and pampering at a plush Johannesburg hotel, plus a two-night safari, cost under $13,000.
A seven-day package offering a selection of two surgical procedures such as lip enhancements, tummy tucks, eyelid surgery, facial laser resurfacing or liposuction begins as low as $3,800, including accommodations at a five-star hotel and some meals.
In the U.S., Ramos said, she'd been quoted $11,000 for a face lift and eye surgery alone, in addition to $5,000 for facial laser resurfacing, and without any of the extra thrills.
"If I had had the procedure done in the U.S., it would have been in-office surgery, and I would have been sent straight home," said Ramos, who went on a wildlife safari 10 days after her surgery.
Van der Poel said Ramos' operations took six hours. Face-lift sutures are typically removed after a week, while most of the tummy tuck stitches are dissolvable. Recuperation lasts for about two weeks, by which time most of the bruising and swelling has decreased, and patients are usually fit enough to fly home, the surgeon said.
Ramos went out on a shopping expedition five days after her surgery. "Most patients like to get their operations over and done with, so they can get well settled and healed before they go home," Van der Poel said.
Melvill tailors her packages to include a range of activities, from game park and vineyard tours, to rides on an authentic steam train, to an excursion through the sprawling black township of Soweto outside Johannesburg.
Baltimore resident Barbara Patz spent months researching the ins and outs of cosmetic surgery before committing herself to a South African medical safari in May.
"I'm at an age where I wanted to turn the clock back a little, if possible, and I had talked to surgeons [in the U.S.] but never felt comfortable," said Patz, 57, who owns an advertising firm.
After six months of investigations into the South African surgeons and an extensive interrogation of Melvill about her business, Patz was convinced that it was worth embarking on the Johannesburg adventure.
"I had always wanted to travel to South Africa," Patz said. "So prior to going, I had decided that if I was not comfortable with the surgeon--or any aspect of the procedures--I would not go through with the surgeries and would simply have a great two-week vacation."
Low-Cost Surgeries on Eyelids, Face, Tummy
The advertising executive travelled to Johannesburg with her fiance. She had surgery on her upper eyelids, a mini face lift, liposuction and a mini tummy tuck. He had his upper and lower eyelids done. All this for half of what it would have cost in the U.S. And neither had any regrets.
"It was fabulous," said Patz, adding that no one at home ever suspected that she had had surgery. "The response I get is, 'You look as though you've lost weight,' or 'Africa really agreed with you.' "
British businessman James Wallis said he received similar compliments when he returned to northern England from South Africa feeling 10 years younger, less stressed and physically more defined.
"I'd been trying to get on a weight-loss program for the last two years," said Wallis, 66, a designer of hand-operated water pumps, who had his jawline redefined. "I had achieved that, but I had made myself a little bit scraggly, and I just wanted to tidy it up." It worked. And as an added bonus, he got to see a lion.