- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 10, 2010

BEIRUT | “Congratulations,” said Dr. Edward Abdulnour, as he gave his 33-year-old patient a quick pat on the shoulder.

The patient, a Lebanese woman, appeared to be smiling because her lips were red and swollen. After having her lips enlarged, her face lifted and her nose narrowed, she looked too groggy from anesthesia to smile.

The doctor whisked out of the room, leaving his assistant to wrap thick gauze bandages around her newly stapled head.

Plastic surgery has long been popular in this city, known for wild parties, beautiful people and political instability. In the past few years of relative calm, it also has become one of the country’s hottest tourist attractions.

“Lebanon is a destination in this field,” said Mona Faris, head of promotions at the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism.

Plastic surgeons say between 20 percent and 40 percent of their patients are cosmetic tourists. Most come to Lebanon come from Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan. But doctors say they are now getting more patients from the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia.

The biggest draw to Lebanon is the price. Operations often cost half as much in Lebanon as they do in Europe or the U.S., according to Dr. Roland Tohme of the Beirut Beauty Clinic, a cosmetic surgery center that caters to tourists. A nose job that costs between $5,000 and $7,000 in the U.S. or Europe can cost $2,000 in Lebanon, he said.

“They come to spend their vacation,” said Dr. Tohme, “and they do their operation.”

Nose jobs, breast implants and liposuction are by far the most common procedures, Dr. Tohme said. Recently, a procedure designed to reduce excess skin after a weight loss of 60 to 90 pounds has become more popular among cosmetic tourists. “Now it’s the new era in plastic surgery,” he said.

It is also a new era for Lebanese tourism in general, according to Ministry of Tourism statistics. In the past nine months, Lebanon has greeted 15 percent more tourists than the same time period in 2009. The year before, the number of tourists increased by almost 40 percent, accounting for about 20 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the Associated Press.

It is not just cost that draws patients from abroad, said Dr. Elias Chammas, director of the Hazmieh International Medical Center, just outside of Beirut. Patients also come to Lebanon for privacy.

Most of his foreign patients come from Arab countries that are more conservative than Lebanon and where plastic surgery can be considered taboo, said Dr. Chammas.

“They come and they do liposuction,” he said. “How can you tell if someone has done liposuction? She will tell you, ‘I was on a diet.’”

Medical tourism has long drawn patients from around the world to Lebanon, and in the past year, the government has started marketing the country’s cosmetic surgeons. Last year, the Ministry of Tourism hosted the opening of a private travel agency specifically designed for plastic surgery patients.

Image Concept arranges surgeries and hotel stays along with tourism packages, said owner Zeina El Haj in an upscale Beirut cafe while sipping a tiny cup of Lebanese coffee. Typical of well-dressed Lebanese women, Ms. El Haj has her hair and nails done professionally at least once a week.

Cosmetic tourists also are attracted by the popularity of plastic surgery among Lebanese women, who are famed for their meticulously cared for beauty, Ms. El Haj said. “It shows you how much credibility this place has,” she said.

According to Ms. El Haj, people also come to Lebanon to enjoy the sights while they recover from their surgeries. Ancient ruins, picturesque mountains and beaches draw people to the Lebanese countryside.

Often called the “party capital of the Middle East,” Beirut is known for its decadent night life, restaurants and liberal attitudes. Ms. El Haj said most patients have no problem partying only days after their surgeries.

“It doesn’t look weird or odd here for people to go to a restaurant with a bandage,” she said.

Some patients say Beirut’s glamorous image may bring in cosmetic tourists, but it comes at a price for local women. “Nadia,” who asked not to use her real name because she does not want anyone to know about her recent surgery, said Lebanese women are under enormous pressure to look good.

“If you are not beautiful, [employers] won’t recruit you,” she said, “no matter what your qualifications.”

Doctors also temper their enthusiasm over the rising popularity of cosmetic tourism in Lebanon with the worry that the country’s fragile peace won’t last long.

Internally, the Western-backed ruling party continues to spar politically with Hezbollah, an Iranian- and Syrian-backed militant group with several members in Parliament. The factions are engaged in fierce debate over a U.N. tribunal expected to indict several Hezbollah leaders.

Many Lebanese people, however, say renewed clashes with Israel are far more likely than a return to civil strife. Rumors of an upcoming war have been circulating for months.

And when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Lebanon’s southern border with Israel last month, tens of thousands of supporters cheered as he vowed that Israel would one day “disappear.”

Farther north at a bus stop in one of Beirut’s many busy shopping districts, locals were not as convinced that Lebanon’s three years of relative peace with Israel has to end in renewed clashes.

Elio, a 17-year-old high school student, said he had to take his exams early this year because school administrators were afraid of a new war with Israel. But Elio said he thinks at least some of it is only hype.

“I have been hearing rumors all summer: There will be war tomorrow. There will be war tomorrow,” he said. “I don’t see any signs of war.”

Dr. Tohme, at the Beirut Beauty Clinic, was more skeptical about the future. He said as long as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians continues, there will be instability in Lebanon.

But for now, he said, new patients continue to visit Lebanon for plastic surgery, despite rising political tensions. “I think if they give us peace at the end,” he said, “we can do magic.”

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