South Africans have been thrilled and flabbergasted by the miracles plastic surgeons perform in the M-Net series Extreme Makeover. No wonder, then, that this is a multibillion-dollar industry. By offering surgical skills combined with a holiday in sunny SA, this country is getting its fair share of the market. Carli Lourens investigates.

Before-lady face Surgery in progress After-lady face
From this... …via surgeons, a bit of pain and quite a lot of cash… to this...
M-Net's reality TV show Extreme Makeover gives one an idea of all that can be achieved with plastic surgery

There are no figures available to prove SA's apparent medical tourism fame, but the Association of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons of South Africa says the industry is still booming, three years after the country started combining these pain-and-pleasure packages.

And all indications are that this industry is raking in much needed hard currency for the country.

Most of SA's 120 or so plastic surgeons offer it all – buttocks to botox (removal of facial wrinkles), with the holiday of your choice.

Patients can have virtually anything they are able to dream up – a nose job with a South Coast jaunt or a boob job with a Cathedral Peak stay.

Further good news for SA is that the demand for plastic surgery is rising rapidly as these operations become more commonplace.

The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery says that close to 7-million surgical procedures were performed in the US last year. The association says there was a 228% increase in the number of procedures in the five years to 2002.

Dr Tom Ford, president of the Association of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons of Southern Africa, says that British women in particular have been coming to SA for these procedures for many years – a result of SA's colonial ties. With lots of change in their purses after the procedure, the ladies can't resist spending more time in sunny SA while their bruises fade. Hence, the emergence of the rejuvenation holiday.

Word of mouth has ensured that the industry keeps growing.

However, SA's favourable exchange rate and natural beauty alone are not enough to sustain the industry. The success of this sector hinges on the surgical skills of plastic surgeons in the country.

Ford suggests that the relatively small number of plastic surgeons relative to a large number of patients has meant that these doctors have gained substantial experience compared to their European counterparts, for example.

He says the most common procedures are still breast augmentation followed by Liposuction, while botox is rapidly gaining popularity.

Ford says most of South African plastic surgeons' patients still originate from Europe, and mainly the UK. The high price of airfares from the US makes it prohibitively expensive for many Americans. Ingrid Lomas, head of Surgical Attractions, agrees that the high price of flights in general is an inhibiting factor when it comes to further growth in the industry.

She says the strong rand has certainly had an adverse effect on the industry. “But people are still coming here,” she says. “It is still good value for money”.

Surgical Attractions offers cosmetic surgery procedures combined with a wide array of rejuvenation options, including stays at SA's top bush lodges, such as Singita and Thornybush.

The company has a partnership with Rennies Travel. “We did this because we want to be as professional as possible,” says Lomas.

Despite the lack of statistical information, there is firm proof of this country's popularity and expertise in this industry, which must mean that it is a significant exporter and hard-currency earner for SA.