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En Route Magazine

Trip/Tuck Lipotourists are Discovering the Perks of Cosmetic Surgery Vacations.

From the private balcony of your suite at the Westcliff, a luxury hotel perched on a hillside that rises above the city, you can gaze out over the grounds of the Johannesburg Zoo. Directly below, your fellow guests lounge by the pool. Like them, you’ve come to South Africa looking for adventure and relaxation, otherwise known as safari and spa. But there’s one item on your itinerary that sets you apart: Tomorrow, Surgeon & Safari, a tour operator specializing in plastic surgery, will have you skip the massage and microdermabrasion. Instead, Dr. Rick van der Poel will be waiting for you at the Rosebank medical clinic to perform the latest in liposuction.

When Surgeon & Safari set up shop in 1999, founder Lorraine Melvill had a novel idea: take advantage of the low South African exchange rate and offer tourists sessions with the country’s top plastic surgeons. Surgery is followed up with private convalescence in a plush hotel like the Westcliff, the boutique hotel Ten Bompas in Johannesburg or the Relais & Chateaux-approved Cellars-Hohenort in Cape Town. Once the bandages come off, patients can choose to recuperate among the elephants and giraffes on a safari, visit South Africa’s famous wineries or even cross the savannah on board a luxury train.

A natural evolution of the spa vacation, “lipotourism” is now reshaping the face of traditional travel all over the world. In Argentina, the Plenitas clinic had everyone talking when it started offering its “tango and breast implant” package deal.  In Thailand, more that 600,000 tourists headed for the operating table in 2004, contributing about $500-million to the country’s economy. And now, popular vacation spots like Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, Malaysia and Cuba combine affordable cosmetic treatments with luxurious pampering under the palm trees. In Canada, a facelift will set you back about $8000.00, while in Malaysia the cost is more like the equivalent of $3500.00, not to mention the valued-added perk of communing with the orangutans.

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It’s not only the savings that explain the popularity of these surgical get-aways. The idea that travel is life changing may be a cliché, but lipotourism gives people the time they need to adjust to their extreme makeovers both on the outside and the inside. “Recuperation in the Bahamas is so beautiful”, says Donna, a businesswoman who during her vacation last year, had a tummy tuck performed by Dr. Kenneth Dickie at the Bahamas Institute of Plastic Surgery. Within 10 days, she had dropped the pounds, recovered from the operation and regained her peace of mind by going boating, walking along the beach and exploring the region. She says the trip was a great way to relax – except for the three days that followed the procedure when she didn’t want to see anyone.

“People don’t want their family or neighbors around while they’re recovering”, says Dr. Dickie, who relocated to the Bahamas after 20 years in Canada. “You don’t want young children running around after you’ve had your tummy tuck.” He set up his clinic in a gorgeous blue and white colonial building and has since been offering his patients (about half of them tourists) a choice of accommodations at the boutique hotel of Pelican Bay at Lucaya or the Sheraton or Westin Grand Bahama Island Our Lucaya Resort, situated right on the beach. His dream: to open a well-being anti-aging center that would offer the whole gamut of youth-enhancing treatments. “A lot of middle-aged Baby Boomers are looking for a more comprehensive approach,” he says.

There was a time when only Hollywood stars would take off for an incognito facelift abroad, but since the advent of reality shows, nips and tucks have become more commonplace. But Dr. Gaston Schwarz, Canada’s national secretary to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, has some serious reservations about that kind of cost cutting. “Plastic surgery is no small matter,” he warns after treating many vacationers whose trips had turned catastrophic. He says that trying to do things on the cheap without being well informed can be risky and that TV, which tends to gloss over complications, can make surgery seem way too easy. What if you land up with a hack Dr. Jekyll instead of a trained Dr. Dickie? Or what if the clinic isn’t properly equipped in case of a medical emergency? Travel has always been a rite of passage, an adventure that can be life altering. Consider our current obsession with beauty and aging, that idea takes on a whole new meaning –even if it’s only skin deep.