By Constanze Letsch, The Guardian

Transplant 'tourism' keeps Istanbul cosmetic surgeons and tour agencies busy providing means to manly beards and whiskers

Turkey's booming health tourism sector is getting hairier. Transplants have long been offered to those who are thin on top, but now facial hair implants are gaining in popularity, with follically challenged men flying in to make the most of the services on offer in the country.

Tulunay, a doctor, says that moustache and beard implants started to become popular two years ago, and that 10 to 15 of his 60 monthly hair transplant patients now ask for facial hair transplantation. Most are from the Middle East.

"Both in Turkey and in Arab countries facial hair is associated with masculinity, and its lack can cause social difficulties. In Turkish there is a word for it: köse – baldness of the face – and it is usually not considered a good thing," Tulunay said. "Businessmen come to me to get beard and moustache implants, because they say that business partners do not take them seriously if they don't sport facial hair."

Ali Mezdegi, a cosmetic surgeon, who has been in the business for more than 10 years, said many of his patients asked for transplants before they took a second, third, or even fourth wife. "Thick hair is a status symbol, and a sign of strength and virility," he said. Arabs, mostly from the Gulf countries, make up 75% of his customers.

Irfan Atik, general manager of a tourism agency that specialises in hair transplant tour packages, estimates that at least 50 Arab tourists go to Istanbul every day for the procedure. Packages cost about $2,300 (£1,400) and include medical and overnight costs incurred during the four days that the measure usually takes.

While the majority of Atik's customers are from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq, he hopes to extend his business to European countries, especially the UK, but laments that a lack of hair seems to be more fashionable there than in the Middle East.

Mezdegi said about 50% of patients came through an agency such as that run by Atik, or through word of mouth.

Turkey's growing influence in the Arab world has transformed the country's tourism sector, now dominated by Arabs: more than four million tourists from Arab countries visited Turkey in 2011, compared with 700,000 in 2001.

"Many of my visitors tell me how much they love [the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan," Atik said. "They laud his stance on Palestine, they say he is strong and a real man." But he admitted that so far none had asked for the "almond" moustache sported by Erdogan and typically associated with supporters of the ruling party, the AKP.

While moustaches like that of the Turkish actor Kadir Inanir, or of the Kurdish singer Ibrahim Tatlises, have long set the standard for what manly whiskers should look like, many patients now want stubble beards like that of the Turkish TV show heartthrob and model Kivanç Tatlitug, or the rugged good looks of the actor Kenan Imirzaglioglu.

Tulunay is convinced the raging popularity of Turkish TV shows in the Middle East has started to dictate beauty ideals. "But I only transplant the hair," he said. "I don't groom it. After a successful hair transplant surgery a man could also grow a Marx-like beard if he so wishes."

Do patients ever come with their partners to consult on a new moustache or beard? "Usually not, and if they do, they are not too keen on moustaches," said Tulunay. "I guess that manliness is also in the eye of the beholder."

© Guardian News and Media 2012

[Bearded man via Shutterstock]