Where Beirut was once the region’s most popular city for going under the knife, turmoil in Syria and violence often spilling into Lebanon is driving away wealthy Arab tourists. After splashing out on medical infrastructure over the past years, Dubai already ranks globally and aims to move up the list of top international destinations for medical tourism.
It plans to attract 20 million tourists by 2020 – with half a million medical tourists bringing in revenues of 2.6 billion dirhams (£443 million). The Dubai Health Authority says around 120,000 medical tourists came last year.
That already puts it ahead of Turkey, with 110,000 medical travellers, and Costa Rica, with 40,000 to 65,000, according to 2013 figures from Patients Beyond Borders, a US group that collects data on the industry.
Globally, medical tourism is big business, estimated to generate £31bn to £37bn a year.
To cash in on the boom, Dubai has rolled out three-month renewable visas for medical tourists and their companions and launched a campaign to brand itself as the Middle East’s top destination for health and plastic surgery.
Vasilica Baltateanu, who started up the United Arab Emirates’ first cosmetic surgery consultancy, Vasilica Aesthetics, said Dubai’s glamour factor is driving the trend among the region’s well-heeled tourists.
“You don’t find them going anymore to Beirut and they are coming to Dubai. Why? It’s much safer in Dubai,” she said. “I think they also choose Dubai because there are the best restaurants here, the best hotels. So you do a surgery and at the same time you have a nice holiday.”
The World Travel & Tourism Council said in its annual 2014 report that the UAE was expected to attract 12.2 million international tourists this year, with Lebanon welcoming just 1.3 million.
A company specialising in laser treatments, Silkor, said it brought its business to Dubai instead of waiting for Gulf clients to come to Lebanon, where it has opened eight branches since its founding 15 years ago. In less than half that time, the company established six branches in the UAE and has plans to open two more.
To cater to the Gulf’s demand for cosmetic procedures, Luiz Toledo, one of the world’s top plastic surgeons in liposuction and the “Brazilian butt lift,” closed his practice in Brazil and moved to Dubai in 2006 because he saw less competition in the Gulf and an opportunity to keep quality and prices up.
“If you think about 20 years ago, nobody in the world heard about Dubai. And today there is not a person in the world that hasn’t heard about it,” said Dr Toledo.
Last year, he saw patients from 73 different countries. His new practice has a private wing for high-rolling Arab clientele.
Dubai has rapidly become home to one of the world’s highest concentrations of plastic surgeons. Dr Toledo said that in the US there are 20 plastic surgeons for every 1 million people, compared to 52 per million in Dubai.
Emma Jordan, a 33-year-old British resident of Dubai and mother-of-three, chose to undergo breast augmentation and stretch mark removal here instead of in London, because while the price was similar, waiting times were shorter and the procedure more personal.
“It’s a huge difference,” she said.