With the well publicized boom in ‘Medical Tourism’ and the now-common-knowledge that patients from certain countries can save up to 75% off common procedures by simply having them done abroad, it didn’t take long for another similar trend to form in its wake. ‘Hair Care Tourism’ is based on a similar principle, namely that the cost of labor and training is so low in some countries that it’s easily possible to save up to 90% on things like haircuts, perms, waves, and coloring procedures.
The worldwide economic downturn has only accelerated the growth in this new style of travel, and now special clinics, barbershops, and even acrylic nails places are sprouting up throughout the Third World, aiming squarely at attracting a growing share of the Hair Care Tourism market.
While it’s now possible to get bargains on almost any hair or beauty-related procedure, it was the enormous savings on simple haircuts that started the trend, so here are six places this new breed of traveler have been focusing on:
Until recently, Phuket was known mostly for having the coolest real place name you could ever have on your t-shirt back home, but now with the hair care tourism boom it’s transformed into one of the busiest destinations in the entire worldwide hair industry. Way back in the early 00s, hippies and round the world travelers discovered they could get the exact cut and hairstyle of a Thai pop star for under US$1 in Phuket, and the world has since beaten a path to its door.
Acrylic nail salons dominate many of the strip malls, just as they do throughout the rest of the world, but here the shops often have lines snaking through the parking lot, with foreign visitors sometimes fighting for places and the chance at a high quality procedure for well under half of what it would cost back home.
Getting there – Most visitors fly into the capitol and spend one night in Bangkok before taking a domestic flight to Phuket itself.
The massive and crowded Egyptian capital has become a huge draw for hair care tourists, since the exact same haircut that normally costs between €20 and €30 in most of continental Europe can go for between €3 and €4 here.
The most common experience is a 3-day package where the shaggy client spends the first day touring the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Egyptian Museum, the second day having the haircut plus recovery time spent at a nearby hookah café, and the third day spent wandering the city fighting off touts whose “cousins” and “brothers” can offer amazingly cheap tours of the places you visited on Day One. Part of Day Three is also reserved for battling locals who beg you to buy Duty Free vodka for their cousin’s wedding later that night.
Getting there – Most airlines fly into Cairo International Airport, and taxis into the city are cheap, although prepare yourself for the thrill of 5 cars sharing 3 lanes for most of the journey.
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
Most Caribbean islands are considered to be absurdly expensive for most things, but hair care tourists have recently discovered that is only true for the nicer and easy-to-reach islands. The new influx of tourists to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines has spurred massive growth in their hair-care industry, with barbershops sprouting up in vacant fields and dusty parking lots throughout the island chain.
The country uses the East Caribbean Dollar, which permanently exchanges at 2.7 to 1 with a US Dollar, so a haircut offered at EC$6 will cost only a bit over US$2 for the crafty hair-care tourist. Don’t expect four-star beach resorts or running, drinkable water, but you can expect a professional haircut at a fraction of the price the same cut would cost in Miami or Montreal.
Getting there – Flying into Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is nearly impossible, but with enough determination it can be done. Visitors from the United States will generally have to fly to Puerto Rico and then to Aruba, and then back to Puerto Rico before flying to Trinidad and/or Tobago, for the final flight into Saint Vincent.
All of India had become a major destination for those looking for everything from shampoo with leave-in rinse conditioner procedures to braiding and ponytails, but simple haircuts make up the bulk of the visits.
It’s good to be cautious in India though, as complicated cuts can easily go astray. Unless you don’t mind a cut like Simon Cowell, Donald Trump, or that actor who played the game show host in ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ it’s wise to go with a single-length buzz cut or a complete shaved head. These cuts can be performed for under US$1, and often include a complimentary ear canal cleaning as well. It’s wise to check your own ears before you allow this, as some unscrupulous cleaners will produce a Skittle-sized “wax” nugget from your ear and then ask for special payment for having removed it.
Getting there – Most hair tourists land in either Mumbai or Delhi, and while affordable cuts are available in both of those cities, you can save an additional 50% or more by taking a simple 10 to 20-hour train journey into the rural zones.
While all of Brazil has become a popular stop for hair care tourists, the northern coastal city of Salvador is considered to be the epicenter of the local industry. High rents in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, along with regulations forcing barbers to work indoors, mean that a haircut in either of those large cities will usually cost at least US$3. But in Salvador, officials responding to the growing trend have passed laws whereby stylists aren’t required to work indoors, or even use a mirror of any kind.
Haircuts in Salvador can be performed for around US$1, and in a surprising high-tech twist, the barbers will usually take a photograph of your head with their mobile phone camera, and then show you how it looks on their screen before you walk away. For a small extra fee you can have them send the photo to a loved-one back home, in case they would prefer a final touch-up while you are still in the chair.
Getting there – Most hair care tourists fly into Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo first, where they can get a domestic flight to Salvador at a modest cost. Those on tighter budgets tend to take overnight buses to Salvador, which take an average of 2 to 3 days, and cost half of what the flights typically do.
Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China
You might think that Beijing or Shanghai would do well with hair care tourists, but those places are considered rip-offs by the real masters of the practice. Instead, you’ll need to go a couple thousand miles west, to the sparsely populated Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in order to find the real action.
Simple haircuts cost around 20 US cents, which makes this area arguably the cheapest place in the world to have your ears lowered. But the true novelty comes along with their bizarre combination of traditions and regulations, which state that barbers must wear fancy suits and cool hats at all times. The open-air cuts are popular here as well, and you’ll often see entire town square jammed with barbers cutting and shaving clients in a fury of precision movement.
Getting there – Being thousands of miles from the main population centers in China, it’s easiest and most common for visitors to enter through Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, although some who find getting to those countries too daunting will fly in directly from Tajikistan instead.
Cairo by drgflyorng on Flickr,
China by A-Boy on Flickr,
Barbershop in Patong, Phuket by madaboutasia on Flickr ,
Salvador de Bahia by voetnoot.org on Flickr,
Hampi, India by raindrift on Flickr,
Ashton, Grenadines by Cowbell Solo on Flickr