On my way out of Turkey, at Istanbul Atatürk Airport, a man just ahead of me leans over and whispers into his wife’s ear, ‘Have you seen the number of women in the departure lounge who have their noses taped to their faces? I can spot at least 10.’
Now, this was a smart man, who had managed to get his wife’s attention immediately. It’s difficult. And while she’s swivelling her head around, I step forward with the most plausible explanation, derived from little that I know about Turkey. ‘They’ve had rhinoplasty. The country is getting very popular with medical tourists.’
Health care is one of Turkey’s fastest-growing industries, and the country received more than half a million medical tourists last year alone.
Indeed it is. According to local newspaper reports and government estimates, Turkey received more than half a million medical tourists last year alone, making it one of the 10 most popular medical tourism destinations in the world.
They’re coming in droves from everywhere, be it Europe next door, Eurasia, also next door, the Middle East, a few doors away, and even from distant lands across the pond. The reason – the posh clinics and hospitals of Istanbul where a platter of treatments are on offer, from eye care, to dental treatment, plastic surgery, hair transplant and IVF.
A cruise down the Bosporus is unmissable when you visit Istanbul, as the breathtaking landscape of the city opens up before you.
I am in Turkey to understand how it all works while absorbing the sights, sounds and chills of Istanbul in winter. But the learning experience can wait, as a golden dawn over the Bosporus and the suspension bridge by the same name – a gorgeous arc in steel and concrete spanning the continental divide that separates Europe from Asia – takes my breath away. In awe, I press my nose, cheeks, spectacles and hands against the cold glass window of my room at Steigenberger Hotel The Maslak, overlooking it all.
That’s where I want to go after breakfast and that’s where I go.
A Bosporus cruise along the 20-mile strait that joins the Sea of Marmara – to the south of Istanbul – with the Black Sea, to the north, is an unmissable experience. With fellow hacks who’d been towed in from other parts of the world, the lone family and customary Jacks and Roses posing a là Titanic, the 60-minute cruise aboard a traditional ferry gives us some of the most expansive views of the city. A city which, once as Byzantium and then as Constantinople, served as the imperial capital of Turkey for almost 16 centuries under the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empires.
Glorious minarets of the Ortaköy Mosque reach out for the azure sky, while the impressive ramparts of the Rumelihisari fortress, which had tested the resolve of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror’s pashas (generals), looms in the horizon and chic yachts anchored along the bay bob peacefully on the minimalist European side.
Ottoman yalis are a common sight by the Bosporus in Istanbul, as are architectural marvels that go back centuries.
On the Asia side, easily the more frenzied and populous, waves lap against the delightfully ornate Beylerbeyi Palace and Ottoman yalis (seaside mansions) even as seagulls hop a free charter on mega-freighters passing under the Fatih Bridge.
Soon, the early morning sunshine gives way to a sombre grey countenance, and a strong gust of December wind is setting us up for a couple of hours of light snowfall, something I’ve never experienced before. I’m amazed at how lightly ice can float down, white, cotton-like candyfloss everywhere – on streets, roofs, people, lamp posts and on the bare, defoliated trees that give the sky a dark, sinuous, deep-veined appearance.
From oral care to complex hair transplantation procedures, Turkey offers serious value for money in the competitive global arena of medical tourism.
Luckily, I keep my hair dry as I find myself at Transmed Klinik, one of Istanbul’s oldest and most popular clinics for hair transplantation and cosmetic surgery. Inside the posh grey-and-beige facility, complete with waiting rooms, consultation chambers, operation theatres, medical and non-medical personnel, I come across a lot of men with scanty pates waiting to find out if they stand a chance of rediscovering follicular nirvana. And if you’re to believe Dr Melike Külahçı, Transmed’s Medical Director, they do.
Since its inception in 1994, the facility has been responsible for more than 14,000 hair transplants, with many modern-day supplicants coming from all parts of the world, including the GCC.
‘They come here for three reasons – they believe they’ll be able to access the best in hair transplantation technology; they are likely to get the procedure done at almost half the price compared to Europe and the US; and lastly, they can enjoy a family vacation while they’re here. That’s not dreary, is it?’
Not by my standards, so I enthusiastically nod in agreement.
The procedure itself is complicated and involves the removal of hair roots or follicular units to be individually implanted into the new area. ‘It can take six to eight hours under local anaesthesia under a qualified physician’s supervision,’ says Dr Külahçı. ‘Anyone who has sufficient amount of hair between his ears is considered eligible.’
Thus, there’s no hope for those who are completely bald.
Depending on the donor area of the patient, the surgical team could carry out as many as 2,500-4,000 grafts. Post-procedure, in eight to 10 days, a thin layer of scabbing falls off and new transplanted hair starts to grow in about three months and lasts forever.
The cost of getting that full head of hair is about €4,000 (about Dh16,415), roughly half of what you’d pay anywhere else in Europe. ‘And then there is the family vacation,’ Dr Külahçı helpfully reiterates.
Medical tourism is the government’s big-ticket initiative, and this becomes apparent wherever you go in Istanbul. Turkish Airlines even offers a 50 per cent discount to visitors who can prove they are travelling to Turkey seeking cure and care. Even at clubs like Arabesque, in Maçka Demokrasi Parkı, you will run into people who have no problems blending a nick here and a snick there with copious amounts of a hugely popular anise-flavoured Turkish beverage. As the evening descends into a night of raucous enjoyment, you find yourself going hip-to-hip with curvaceous belly dancers and nimble zennes (male belly dancers, once mainstays at Ottoman courts and now back in vogue). Keeping me on my feet is an endless supply of mezes and warm appetisers – couscous, babaganoush, potato salads, grilled peppers stuffed with cheese, grilled börek with cheese and saffron, musakka and chickpea manti.
With a night like that behind me, it isn’t easy to get back on my feet and I don’t until late into a bright and sunny morning. After battling Istanbul’s perpetually jammed roads, we reach Dentopia, a sprawling 3,500-square-metre facility dedicated to oral care. The clinic comprises 21 private rooms, a fully-equipped operation theatre and a central sterilisation unit that provides round-the-clock services.
On the menu here are oral and dental radiology; prosthetic, restorative and aesthetic dentistry; endodontics, treatment for breath odour; and even dentistry services for special needs people.
‘The idea is to make oral health care, easy, efficient and speedy for our clients,’ says Mete Özel, General Manager, Dentopia-Istanbul. ‘Patients looking to travel for treatment can contact us over email, send their X-rays and expect a proposed treatment plan and associated costs the same day!’
International patients are well looked after from the moment they step off their flight. Accommodation is usually provided close to the facility, transport is arranged and translators are at hand to bridge that conversational gap. And while they are receiving implants, getting their cavities filled or, like in some cases, having their smiles redrawn, the families are bussed around on sightseeing tours across Istanbul and other Turkish cities. Now that’s service with a smile, for a smile.
For us, there is lunch at the famous Ömür Restaurant in Bahçelievle, which, I am told, is a long-time favourite of Turkish newly-weds looking to throw a wedding bash for friends and family. I can understand why, because it is in places like these that Turkish hospitality takes on a whole new meaning.
Your hosts never leave the table unless you decide to roll off your chair and slink on your belly towards the closest exit. At least, that is the only option left for me, my gut weighed down by ayran, mezes, a main course of freshly grilled fish served with salad, a cool and creamy sütlaç (rice pudding), and endless cups of çay (tea).
A powerful remnant of medieval history, the Galata Tower dominates Istanbul’s skyline.
Thankfully, someone finds the exit before I do and soon we are trooping back to the hotel. That is about all I can take for the day – a lesson in oral health care followed by a lunch designed to leave you feeling like those fat furry cats that laze outside souvenir shops in Beyoğlu, where we stop by later that evening. Our host is the Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah, which overlooks the magnificent Golden Horn and historical old city. Both are within walking distance of the Bosporus, Galata Tower and the famous shopping street of Istiklal – making the hotel among the most ideally located properties of Istanbul.
Built in 1892 by French architect, the special category museum hotel is a blend of neoclassical, art nouveau and oriental styles. Over the years, it has hosted many popular figures, heads of states, film actors and noted writers like Agatha Christie, Greta Garbo, Alfred Hitchcock, Kemal Ataturk, the Kennedys, and King Edward VIII, to name a few.
A frequent visitor to the hotel, it was here that Christie, the bestselling author of all time, is said to have written Murder on the Orient Express. Her room, 411, was also rumoured to hold the key to her cryptic 11-day disappearance, a mystery which remains unsolved to date. It is now available for people to stay, though, but for a tidy price. Room 101 has been converted into the Ataturk Museum as a tribute to the founder of modern Turkey.
After admiring the Christofle silverware and the first electric-powered lift in Istanbul operated under supervision, it’s time for dinner at – where else but – the Agatha Restaurant. Fans of fine dining will find the menu a delicious smorgasbord of French, Italian and Turkish cuisines.
The Anadolu Medical Centre in Gebze, affiliated to Johns Hopkins Medicine, is one of Istanbul’s foremost facilities for the treatment of cancer.
It’s another night that delivers more than it promises. Which is why, the next day, I am up and ready to resume the third and final leg of my journey into understanding Turkey’s burgeoning reputation as a top medical tourism destination. Cue the Anadolu Medical Centre (AMC) in Gebze.
Opened in 2005 and set over a lush 42 acres, it is affiliated to the prestigious Johns Hopkins Medicine International centre, which enables them to provide specialised treatments to patients battling cancer, brain tumours, or cardiac problems. It was the first hospital in the country and the fourth in Europe to acquire the CyberKnife – a non-invasive alternative to surgery for the treatment of cancerous and non-cancerous tumours. It delivers accurate beams of high-dose radiation anywhere in the body to critical clinical effect. Ever since AMC began to offer the treatment, it has treated hundreds of patients from more than 20 countries.
An on-campus five-star hotel, reserved for the families of international patients, means loved ones can stay within walking distance of the hospital. However, for those who prefer not to stay on campus, special rates can be arranged with neighbouring hotels.
Also at hand is an international team of 47 people fluent in 18 languages, including eight who speak Arabic. This allows them to reach out to patients and their families and communicate effectively, thus eliminating any problems that may arise pertaining to imparting information.
Soon, you realise that all tourists, some firm, others infirm, people looking to mend an accessorial aspect of their personality and those seeking a fresh lease of life, are coming for something more than just quality health care at affordable costs.
An endless array of traditional mezes and meats as well as local beverages lace vibrant nights out with the flavour of the orient.
It comes to me later that night, when I am back in Beyoğlu at Galata Meyhanesi, the renowned traditional restaurant where a band of merry middle-aged men goad the younger, noisier bunch of regulars into a jolly dance night after night.
Around the place, tourists who don’t even understand the language are stepping in with the delightful throng of people, accompanied by music, movement and laughter. It’s then I realise why all these medical tourists come to Turkey seeking care.
It’s like they are home.