A doctor examines a hair transplant patient at a licensed clinic in Istanbul. Turkey’s cosmetic surgery sector is being undermined by illegal operators. Murad Sezer / Reuters
ISTANBUL // Tourists take a glance at package tour promotions hanging on the door of a travel agency on Istanbul’s Taksim Square as a young man enters the small office with a folder in his hand.
Ismail is in a hurry and takes a document out of his folder with a list of potential customers and hands it to the owner of the travel agency, sitting in her chair.
“I think we can transfer some five or six people this week,” he nods with a smile.
This everyday ritual reveals how the local black market manages its network of unlicensed hair-transplant businesses spread across Istanbul and in other major Turkish cities.
This expanding network of clinics profits from an ever-growing number of visitors from abroad, mainly from Arab countries, the vast majority of whom do not realise they are being treated by illegal and often dangerous operators.
According to data from the Turkish Healthcare Travel Council (THTC), 746,000 foreign visitors landed in Turkey for medical treatment in 2015. As many as 100,000 arrived for hair implant surgeries and nearly two-thirds of them were from the UAE. Turkey earned US$5.8 billion from legal medical tourism in 2015, or nearly $10,000 per visitor. Medical treatment in Turkey costs as little as half the price in countries such as Germany and the United States, the THTC says.
It is perhaps little wonder the illegal clinics are growing. Everyday scores of clients’ documents and lists of customers are delivered by middlemen such as Ismail to and from dozens of tourism agencies in central Istanbul.
Then the agencies introduce the patients to a clinic, which in return pays the tour agency a certain amount of commission per visitor. Once those seeking hair-replacement therapy have decided on a treatment, they usually arrive on an all-inclusive package covering a welcome at the airport, transport in luxury cars, a hotel reservation in a central location and transfer back after the treatment is finished.
Turkey’s booming health tourism industry has been driven by increased investment in health facilities and treatment technology over the past decade. Cosmetic surgery options such as hair implants, as well as eyebrow and facial hair implants, have led this boom. More than 200 hair transplants are carried out in Turkey per day, the country’s health ministry says.
Most foreign patients come from the Arabian Gulf region looking to reverse hereditary hair loss or treatment to make repairs after botched operations at illegal clinics.