Maternity tourism grows booming in South Korea
Mothers-to-be from China and Russia are being wooed by services they feel are not available in their own countries
First-time mother-to-be Yulia Batichenko was anxious as the big day approached.
In particular, she worried about the cleanliness and reliability of the maternity facilities available in her native Russia.
So she flew to Seoul to give birth, joining a host of expectant mothers who are being wooed by South Korea's promotion of itself as a destination for medical tourism, with women being told that their recovery will be eased by Korea's traditional culture of childbearing.
Mothers are invited to spend a few weeks recuperating at specialised postnatal care facilities.
"There are many things that are not so good in my country. In particular, the hospitals and hospitality are better in Korea. The experience was much more comfortable and convenient there," said Batichenko, 28.
Batichenko was given instruction in how to breastfeed and maintain the proper temperature for her baby. She received massages and skin treatments and was taught exercises to help her regain her pre-pregnancy figure. There was also traditional seaweed soup, which is meant to ease swelling and provide nutrients that assist recovery.
"Korean methods allow mums to recover faster than any other methods. All mothers need these kinds of services, but they aren't available in their countries, so they come here. Our clients go back to their countries and tell their friends, which is a kind of PR," says Shin Pil-hyang, chairperson of the Korean Postpartum Care Centre Association.
"Many women from China come here to use the unique Korean methods. China is a growing market, so we expect that a big part of our growth in the future will come from Chinese clients," says Shin.
Batichenko stayed at Le Madre postpartum care centre in Seoul's trendy Gangnam district. "It was a little difficult sometimes because I don't speak Korean and the nurses didn't know English, but they tried to say some things to me in English."
After giving birth to a healthy boy, Artem Smekhov, she stayed at the centre for almost three weeks at a cost of several US thousand dollars.
The campaign to attract mothers to South Korea appears to be finding success. In 2011, there were 7,568 foreign women who did so, a 33 per cent rise from 2010, according to the Korea Health Industry Development Institute. The year before experienced a 42 per cent rise. Russians and Chinese make up a large proportion of those visitors. Japanese, too, are among the clientele, with actress Ko Yuki recently helping drive the trend by giving birth at Le Madre in Gangnam in January.
Her representatives told the South Korean media that she was impressed with the 24-hour care.
"We create a situation where mothers don't need to worry about anything, everything is provided," said Le Madre CEO Hong Yoo-ri in one interview.
In at least one respect, the South Korean birth industry is surprising. In 2010, the nation's birth rate was the lowest among all developed nations, at 1.2 children per woman.
And according to Statistics Korea, new marriages in 2012 hit an all-time low of 309,000.
The low birthrate is being seen as a threat to South Korea's economy, though the foreign birth industry may offer a measure of relief to its underworked maternity wards.
Under South Korean law, children born to foreigners in the country are not granted citizenship or any other special benefits.