Going on a holiday for sun, safari and surgery?

Tourists to South Africa come home with more than a tan after a "scalpel safari"


A new breed of tourist to South Africa is returning home with more than a tan to account for their glowing good looks. The secret lies not only in the holiday of a lifetime in game parks or the Cape winelands but the chance to transform face or figure at the same time.

Their secret is an unusual partnership between surgical skill and tourism, which comes packaged in luxury. Enterprising tour operators there are currently around 10 of them have spotted the potential of plastic surgery, at a fraction of European prices, combined with exotic African adventure. And their offers are attracting an increasing number of overseas visitors to take “scalpel safaris”.

In Ireland and the UK, the tendency is for people to go into hiding post-operatively. South Africa where nips tucks and boob jobs are fair game for table talk offers privacy with a perfect holiday alibi to cover for absence. A big part of the attraction is the saving involved in world-class surgery which can more than cover the cost of the holiday. This is due both to the fact that the South African currency, the Rand, has fallen in value in recent months and the fact that prices in South Africa are much lower than those in Europe. When clients opt for multiple procedures breast augmentation with liposuction and a tummy tuck or a face and eye lift are popular combinations the trip becomes even more cost effective.

Through a company like Surgeons and Safari, it’s perfectly possible to fly into Johannesburg or Cape Town on a Tuesday and attend a pre-operative consultation, have minor surgery the following day, be pampered with champagne and room service in a five-star hotel the next day and enjoy your first face-to-face encounter with a lion by the end of the week. Guests have the option of booking into the Westcliff, the luxurious Orient Express hotel in Johannesburg or its Capetown counterpart, the Mount Nelson. Or they may opt for the more personal atmosphere of an upmarket guest house in the leafy suburbs.

The next stop might well be the breathtaking Entabeni Game Reserve in the Waterberg region, two and a half hours from Johannesburg. Post-operative guests stay in the luxurious Kingfisher Lodge. “People usually come to us after surgery because they want to experience a safari,” says Michelle du Plessi, manager of the Kingfisher. “Entabeni means place of mountain, and they can go on game drives with their own ranger or for picnics by mountain waterfalls.”

Alternatively, they may undertake their own personal safari in the Cape where choices range from shark diving to whale watching. For Barbara Patz of Baltimore in the US, the two in one trip worked perfectly: “We didn’t tell anyone, including children and close friends. The reaction has been that Africa certainly agreed with us.”

Barbara spent six months weighing up her decision to travel with Surgeons and Safari to have a mini face lift, eye lift, liposuction and a tummy tuck. “I had always wanted to travel to South Africa and I decided that if I was not comfortable with any aspect of it, I would not go through with the surgeries and would simply have a great two-week vacation. But once I met Dr Rick Van der Poel, I became confident. He understood that I did not want to change my looks, rather enhance them and push the clock back.” Barbara’s fiancee travelled with her and also opted for an eye lift.

They were both delighted with the results and the holiday. “Rick Van der Poel’s skill as an artist is superb. Pain was minimal and our recuperation easy. After a few days, we felt well enough to go anywhere and we spent a great two days at the Entabeni Reserve, then we took a car and a driver and had a day trip to Sun City.”

Surgeons and Safari launched a year ago was the brain child of Lorraine Melville. And if the idea of undergoing surgery alone in a strange place doesn’t appeal, Lorraine has come up with the answer: a personal assistant to befriend clients, meet them at the airport, hold their hand through consultations and surgery and introduce them to local attractions. “Why not do it in luxury,” is Lorraine’s maxim and she’s determined to reverse negative perceptions of South Africa. “We have to stop being victims, we have a shocking exchange rate but why not turn it to our advantage?” Her partnership with plastic surgeons allows them to advertise their services through a third party which is against their code in South Africa.

To date, her scalpel and safari tourists have been arriving at the rate of five or six a week with an age range from 25 to 66. The majority are women, mainly from the UK, with the 45-plus age group primarily opting for liposuction and face and eye lifts and younger women seeking breast augmentation. Anyone opting for surgery must first answer a detailed questionnaire and send photographs for assessment by a professionally accredited plastic surgeon and phone consultations are encouraged. The client then gets a treatment plan and cost estimate, pre and post-operative consultations and a recuperation package are all part of the deal.

One of the disadvantages of long-distance surgery, though, is that costs can escalate, both at the time of the first consultation when the surgeon actually sees the client for the first time and during surgery, if the procedure takes longer than anticipated.

There are questions about whether a safari/surgery deal is necessarily in the patient’s best interests. “A lot of cosmetic surgeons would have reservations about the fact that money is being paid to a commercial organisation for surgery when the patient may not be suitable,” points out Tom Ford, secretary of the 90-member plus strong Association of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons of South Africa. In regular cosmetic surgery practice, up to 50pc of patients are found to be unsuitable for treatment, either on grounds of unrealistic expectations or for physical/health reasons.

An alternative is to deal with a South African cosmetic surgeon, who comes to his clients, before flying out to Africa for treatment. Dr Saul Braun, who runs a Johannesburg practice, flies into the UK several times a year for consultations and has seen his number of overseas patients go up from around 25 to 150 plus annually over the last five years. With regard to packaged operations, Braun says: “If you only see the patient the day before the operation, it puts huge pressure on the surgeon and can lead to problems. The most important thing is to select only patients who are suitable.”

Tom Ford says that the members of the Association are happy that people from overseas can take advantage of South Africa’s excellent plastic surgeons provided they are accredited by the Association and the favourable exchange rate.

Training for cosmetic surgeons is based on the British system and members of the profession are extremely experienced thanks to the system of volunteer patients in hospitals here. There is also the question of post-operative complications. “In that situation, it is not suitable for patients to have to fly back, who would look after them?”

Surgery does carry some risk of post-operative thrombosis which combined with the risk of deep vein thromobosis due to immobility on long-haul flights could pose a threat to health. In addition, a packaged surgery deal does not allow patients the luxury of choice. “It’s a little different, flying in and staying with friends than choosing between different surgeons, and maybe going away and thinking about it and coming back. The set up isn’t a 100pc ideal,” says Ford. But for many consumers, the convenience of having everything organised more than outweighs these considerations, it’s a matter of making an informed choice.