BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Canadian lobster and tuna fisherman Everett Condon had never traveled further south than the United States until this year, when he spent his off-season going to tango shows and getting plastic surgery in Argentina.
Like thousands of others, mostly from the United States, Europe, and Canada, Condon was drawn to South America’s attractive exchange rates and reputable doctors who are highly skilled due to a local rage for cosmetic surgery.
The 66-year-old signed up online for a face-lift, eye-lift, and chest reduction through the flashy Web site of a Buenos Aires medical tourism company.
“I’ve been thinking of this for a long time, but it’s a lot more expensive in my country,” said Condon, who had a nose job back home and then started looked for cheaper options to make himself look younger.
The Buenos Aires boob-job boom began after a 2002 financial collapse and currency devaluation made visiting the country cheaper. Since then, companies have sprung up to offer complete packages, including surgery, accommodation and tours.
A face lift that might cost $15,000 in the United States costs roughly $5,000 in Argentina, or a combination breast implant and liposuction combination might cost $3,700.
Prominent Argentine plastic surgery-tourism firm Plenitas says it pulls in $4 million each year, seeing over 1,500 patients since opening its doors in 2003.
Argentina is in the world’s top ten countries by number of surgeries, a list led by the United States, Brazil, and Mexico. Top Argentine insurance plans even offer one elective surgery every one or two years as part of regular coverage.
Elsewhere in South America, Brazil and Colombia are also drawing more medical tourists. In Colombia, 40 new clinics have opened up to serve tens of thousands of foreigners a year, many of them in Cali, a city where drug gangsters notoriously seek girlfriends who have had plastic surgery.
“They find the best specialists in Cali, the latest scientific advances in plastic surgery and highly competitive prices. So we receive more than 100,000 patients per year,” said Gladis Barona, director of the National Commerce Federation.
Medical tourism has popped up everywhere from Turkey to Thailand, said Renato Saltz, secretary general of the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, or ISAPS.
To minimize risk, he said, patients should check surgeons’ certification, consult references, and communicate directly with doctors, not just via the travel agency.
“Be sure you do your homework first,” said Saltz.
Critics say offers that look too good to be true probably are, as 34-year-old D. Anderson — who did not want her full first name published — found when a botched breast lift and tummy tuck led to a nine-day hospital stay upon her return home to Texas.
Anderson said she got a life-threatening infection and had to return three times to Argentina for corrections on her surgery, but problems persist.
“I ended up with a hematoma in my left breast, which is hard as a rock. My right nipple is the size of a silver dollar and my left nipple is the size of a quarter,” she said. “I had nice boobs to begin with. So I went from nice boobs to uneven, crazy boobs.”
According to Jude O’Hara, the frequency of stories like Anderson’s led her and a friend to found Aesthetic Argentina, a nonprofit that shares information on surgeons.
“What started up as a slow trickle of people coming to have their surgeries here has really exploded, and you have people who have no background in plastic surgery setting up medical tourism businesses to try and get their hands on this great market,” said O’Hara.
Plenitas Chief Executive Roberto Gawianski said the ever-growing number of satisfied customers is testament to the quality his company provides.
“You can’t play with the health of a patient ... We couldn’t have existed for as many years as we have, growing bigger month after month, if we didn’t have the highest level of care for our patients, who recommend us to others,” he said.
Even while South America’s plastic surgery tourism takes off, the business is still built on a booming local trade. Buenos Aires plastic surgeons say they continue to make most of their money from Argentines.
Likewise, in Colombia, even women from poor neighborhoods save up for operations, hoping to land rich boyfriends. And in Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez recently railed against a breast implant mania that has spread to teenage girls.
“Here, it’s almost impossible for a person not to go to a gym or to watch what he or she eats. It’s all part of a culture,” said Mariela Cavallo, a 26-year-old Buenos Aires resident who had breast augmentation last year.