JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - Forget Africa's big game or unspoiled scenery. More and more foreign tourists are coming to South Africa for a little nip and tuck at the country's private hospitals, with safari on the side.
Joy Kramel-Cox travelled 12 hours from London to undergo a tummy tuck, a nose job, and eyelid surgery at a private Johannesburg clinic, which cost her about 154,000 rand (15,200 dollars/11,400 euros).
"After a lot of research on the Internet, I settled for South Africa. I loved the rates and the recuperation deal offered to me," said the 54-year-old high school drama teacher.
"It is no doubt that I would have paid more in my home country, and I got a chance to see the country while recovering. I also liked the feeling of coming back home after a holiday and people notice more than just my tan," said Kramel-Cox, mother to a 13-year-old boy.
Tour operators say luxury retreats in the popular Cape winelands, safari hide-outs in the Kruger National Park region and secluded coastal resorts are favourite recuperation spots among foreign patients.
The long holiday lets them recover in seclusion, returning home only once the bandages are off.
"Medical safaris are a growing phenomenon, thanks to the country's private hospitals that offer quality services that are on par with other hospitals in Europe," said Lorraine Melvill, founder and owner of Surgeon and Safari in Johannesburg.
South Africa's reputation for affordable, specialised medical care has steadily risen since the mid-1990s.
The handful of medical tourism companies operating are reporting an increased market share from both overseas and domestic patients.
According to Melvill, the patients receive extensive consultations before making the trip, and their price tag includes flights, visas and accommodation as well as the hospital fees.
"A lot of Europeans choose five-star luxury lodges where they can have game drives and enjoy the African sun while recovering," said Melvill, who also runs an exclusive hotel.
She said South Africa was competing with other emerging economies like India, Malaysia, Brazil, Thailand and Costa Rica, which are already major players in medical tourism.
"South Africa is a long-haul destination, so we are facing stiff competition from other countries which are closer to Europe, but our medical service and our package deals make it worthwhile," she said.
The lures of such lucrative private practise have raised fears that doctors and nurses will leave the public health system that serves ordinary South Africans to cater to wealthy foreigners.