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Shop 'till you drop in Seoul

SEOUL is a shopper's paradise and a cut-rate heaven for anyone wanting to go under the knife for a face-lift, nose job or breast enhancement. The plunging won is tourist magnet, report Cheon Jong-woo and Angela Moon.

South Korea's plunge towards recession is bringing in high-spending tourists by the planeload in search of bargains and beauty.

Foreign tourists, mainly from Japan and China, have been pouring into their neighbor to snap up Louis Vuitton bags and get a nose job, sometimes on the same trip.

The attraction? Thanks to a Korean won that has fallen in the past year by 40 percent against the yen alone, Asia's fourth-largest economy has become cheap for foreigners.

"Costs for plastic surgery here used to be just half of what it costs in the US. But with the foreign exchange rates, we charge about a third now," says Kim Byung-gun, chief plastic surgeon at BK DongYang Plastic Surgery Clinic in Seoul.

"Foreign patients have doubled. I see infinite growth potential in the plastic surgery market for foreigners," says Kim.

Elaine Teo, a 35-year-old Singaporean, is a case in point.

"You know, it's like using one stone to kill two birds," she observes at a plastic surgery clinic in downtown Seoul where she was getting a facial wrinkle-lift.

She expected to spend two to three days in hospital for the surgery. The rest of her 10-day holiday in Seoul was to be spent shopping.

According to the South Korea Tourism Organization, the number of foreign visitors in the first two months of this year jumped 25.5 percent from a year ago.

Tourists from Japan surged more than 64 percent and from China 16 percent. They are easy to spot in the streets of Seoul, laden with shopping bags from up-market department stores and duty-free shops.

It was a similar story with the number of foreigners coming to South Korea for medical treatment jumping just over 60 percent to over 27,000, many of them on so-called "shopping and surgery" packages.

It is proving a boon for the host country, which is tipping into its first recession in over a decade and where locals are spending less and less.

The government plans to allow local hospitals to hire marketing agencies to attract overseas customers from May and train more interpreters for foreign patients.

"Tourists for medical services usually spend three to 10 times more than other foreign visitors. That is a great market we should boost," says Joung Jin-su, a director of the strategy tourism product team at the South Korea Tourism Organization.

With the Japanese yen nearly doubling against the won from a year ago, domestic retailers are also coming up with ways to attract more Japanese tourists.

In early March, top retailer Shinsegae opened Centum City, the country's largest department store offering shops and spa facilities, in the southern port city of Busan, less than 200 kilometers from Japan.

"Bathing is culturally very close to the Japanese. We came up with a concept that can provide both shopping and what they like best, bathing," says a spokesman at Shinsegae.

Centum City reported more than 20 billion won (US$14.46 million) in sales in its first week, thanks to Japanese tourists. The number taking the ferry across to Busan is up 50 percent so far this year, according to the Busan Metropolitan Office.

They home in on pricy brand-name goods that are 30-40 percent cheaper than at home.

"We just came but I'm hoping to shop a lot since it's so cheap," says Rika Ikechi, 27, on her first day of shopping but already holding several bags from one of Seoul's top duty free stores.

"Usually I don't do this, but I just bought three of same cosmetics."


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