Chinese cosmetic surgery boom is over for Korea

Illegal agents and clinics, rising prices and adverse publicity all contribute to falling Chinese cosmetic surgery numbers. Figures from the 10 most popular cosmetic hospitals show a 20% drop from 13,500 customers in 2014 to 10,000 in 2015.

The Chinese cosmetic surgery tourism boom in South Korea is over. The number of Chinese customers reached a peak of 79,000 in 2014. Official figures are not yet out, but figures from the 10 most popular cosmetic hospitals among Chinese visitors shows a 20% drop from 13,500 customers in 2014 to 10,000 in 2015.

Early indications are that total inbound numbers rose in 2015 but this disguises falling numbers in the later half of 2015 and local reports of fewer customers from China and elsewhere in 2016.

Chinese customer numbers fell due to decreased satisfaction with results, public problems on illegal brokers, charging higher prices for foreigners than locals, illegal clinics, and use of unqualified surgeons, aggravated by the economic problems in China.

According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, of the 36,224 foreigners who had cosmetic surgery in Korea in 2014, 20,480 or 56.5 % chose clinics in Gangnam.

Gangnam is full of cosmetic surgery clinics, but where they once teemed with Chinese women wearing the characteristic casts protecting their brand-new noses, they are now experiencing a decline in patient numbers. Some clinics report numbers down by half. Massive competition sees clinics slashing prices by over 50% for Chinese and Korean patients.

Earlier this year Chinese state broadcaster CCTV broadcast a report exposing overcharging by Korean hospitals, and the Beijing News ran several articles showing the side effects customers suffered from conveyor-belt practices. The Chinese media has been full of stories of cosmetic surgery performed by unqualified doctors in Korea.

The government targeted a million foreign patients by 2020 and W2.9 trillion in medical revenues, but those targets look increasingly unachievable. The authorities are cracking down on poor practice but the reputation damage has been done. An increasing number of Korean and other clinics are offering cosmetic surgery in China, and the Chinese authorities will be ruthless in closing down, fining, sending home and even imprisoning any surgeon or agent that acts badly.

Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare took steps in April to enable foreign patients to check what procedures they receive and how much they should be paying. Foreign patients can also reclaim 10% VAT, and the government has capped the commissions agents can charge.