Sea, sun and scalpel - where women need to look the best

Plastic surgery has never been particularly taboo in Lebanon, and now the east Mediterranean country is capitalising on its popularity as a venue for lovers of sea, sun and scalpel.

A cosmetic surgery tourism initiative, launched by a private company under the auspices of the tourism ministry, includes post-operation rest and recuperation in stellar resorts and even summer camps for patients' children.

The Dubai-based firm Image Concept handles all bookings and accommodation for tourists seeking cosmetic surgery in Lebanon, which is famed for its skilled yet affordable surgeons.

Nicole, a native New Yorker of Lebanese origin, recently saved US$7000 (A$8600) by having a nose job in Lebanon.

"In the States it would cost me about $9000 to have rhinoplasty, but in Lebanon it cost me only $2000," said the 21-year-old law student.

While surgery was not her only motive for a holiday in Beirut, Nicole admits that being in Lebanon was a decisive factor.

"I was not for it at all at first," she said. "My extended family here convinced me. Spending summers here, one of the first questions people would ask me is 'when are you going to do your nose?'.

"I did a bit of research and I saw this well-reputed doctor's work was pretty natural, so I went for it," she said.

Nada Sardouk, the tourism ministry's director general, believes the programme is both "innovative and promising."


"Cosmetic tourism is a widely recognised and appreciated concept, and we are very hopeful that this initiative will contribute to our economy," she said at the launch of the scheme in June.

Local banks have also played their part, with many offering low-interest loans for beautification procedures.

Estimating how many nip-and-tucks will take place this summer is difficult, but a handful of top surgeons said they each had hundreds of operations scheduled for August alone, many of them clients from the oil-rich Gulf.

Nour, a 26-year-old Kuwaiti, is taking full advantage of her holiday in Lebanon and readying for rhinoplasty and surgery to remove a small scar.

-- 'A national duty for women to look the best' --

Although both she and her surgeon agree that neither surgery is "necessary," she said she wanted to look better for her job at a bank.

"I come to Lebanon anyway every year for vacation," Nour said at the Hazmieh International Medical Centre, which employs an army of more than 50 cosmetic surgeons and is still expanding.

"All doctors here are skilled, the prices are moderate and it's not a taboo any more," she said.

Surgeon Elias Shammas, who heads the Hazmieh centre and is affiliated with Image Concept, says Nour is one of many patients of all ages and genders who brave the knife to be "fashionable."

"And Lebanon has always been famous for medical tourism, way before the civil war" from 1975 to 1990, he added. "The only thing that stopped people coming here was the political situation."

Men and women from the Gulf states have long come in droves for augmentation and reduction in Lebanon, but they kept their distance after political turmoil and violence rocked the country for four years between 2005 and 2008.

Tourism was particularly badly hit by the 34-day summer war between the Shiite Hezbollah and Israel in July and August 2006.

But the industry made a dramatic recovery last summer with the arrival of 1.3 million visitors and, after a peaceful general election in June, Lebanon hopes to host two million tourists by the end of the year, the tourism ministry says.

Nader Saab, surgeon to the stars and a jury member on the Miss Lebanon beauty pageant, says three quarters of his clients in the summer season, which is already fully booked, hail from abroad.

Men are increasingly seeking cosmetic surgery, but Saab says it is still mostly women who feel the need to "compete."

"Aging is coming, and a woman is aware that she might be replaced by another woman," he said. "We live in a society in which appearances are very important."

A popular model among women opting for plastic surgery is pop star and sex symbol Haifa Wehbe, surgeons say, and many young ladies leave clinics looking uncannily like the dark-haired, voluptuous siren.

What women want generally is "a sexy body -- a good silhouette and beautiful boobs," Saab added.

And according to Shammas, "It is a national duty for women to look the best they can."