The young woman stands in the elevator of the plastic surgery clinic carrying a bag full of clothes. She says her employer, a middle-aged Lebanese woman, has just had a facelift.
“I’m taking her home today. She looks good; she seems happy with the result. She has been here before for an operation on her nose. She is pretty,” the small woman says with a big smile as she gets out of the elevator and heads toward a recovery room on the fifth floor.
Downstairs in the reception room of the building giggling young women wait on the couches to see one of the plastic surgeons. The head of the Hazmieh International Medical Centre, Dr. Elias Chammas, is free for a few minutes. But he says he has 13 nose operations scheduled for the day, more than his usual seven or eight daily surgeries.
His clinic is part of a project run by the Ministry of Tourism in cooperation with a medical marketing company based in Dubai that, since May 2009, promotes organized trips to Lebanon for plastic surgery. The idea came from Zeina El Hajj, a Lebanese businesswoman who has been living in Dubai for 17 years. She saw the growing demand in Arab countries for plastic surgery services and seized the opportunity and contacted the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism about organizing cosmetic surgery tours. Hajj manages her Arab clients through Image Concept, her medical services marketing company. Her company sends future patients to Lebanese hotels and schedules them at the Hazmieh International Medical Centre for surgery. The price varies according to the client’s requests.
“The packages are customized, according to what the customer requires. They have to fill out a special form, and we organize everything: flight, accommodation, transportation and medical services,” Hajj says.
“The HIMC is the only partner in the program for now, but we are working on expanding our offer in doctors and medical institutions, not only for cosmetic medical services, but for medical services in general.”
Many clients come to Lebanon from the Gulf countries, where plastic surgery is somewhat taboo, but there are also Europeans and Americans, who find Lebanese prices attractive. Angela, a 22-year-old Lebanese national who lives in the United States, says she chose to have her nose job done in Lebanon because it is much cheaper than in America. “I paid $1,600 in Lebanon. In the US I would have paid almost ten times as much,” she says.
She says she found her doctor through friends, as she wouldn’t “trust a doctor whose number I found on a billboard.” “I asked many people before finding a good doctor. He was not a plastic surgeon, he is an ENT specialist. But he did a great job. What’s the use of having a nice nose if you can’t breathe with it, right?” she says.
In his office in Hazmieh, Dr. Chammas sips his coffee and smiles. “The plastic surgery market in Lebanon is very difficult; there are many doctors and the competition is high. We can’t afford high prices here,” he tells NOW.
At the same time, Lebanese doctors are known around the world for their skills. Many have studied in reputable institutions in Europe and North America and practiced medicine abroad during the civil war. When they returned to Lebanon they found a high demand for cosmetic surgery.
The same is true for Dr. Chammas, who worked in Saudi Arabia for almost a decade during the war. When he returned to Lebanon he contacted a few friends and with them started what he calls the first Lebanese plastic surgery center. That was 12 years ago. Now around 30 plastic surgeons work out of his clinic.
He says the business is doing well enough without any advertising in Lebanon. “We don’t need billboards to advertise. We believe that word of mouth is the best way to make yourself known. We are still doctors; we don’t sell supermarket surgeries. On the contrary, we refuse patients when they don’t really need an operation,” he says.
But there is just one thing that could hurt the Lebanese medical tourism industry, he says. “When we have political stability, like we had for the past few months, it’s going great. But when there is a small problem, even if there is just a rumor that there might be a security problem in Lebanon, we don’t work for a month!”