Belo Immigration Ads Great for Medical Tourism

October 19, 2010

Many Filipinos associate Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) with corruption and different types of malpractice unbecoming of a public agency. There is widespread knowledge about grumbling immigration officers who make things difficult for first time travelers outside the country. There are airport staff who openly ask for dole outs from balikbayans and inspectors who outlaw certain baggage contents so they can keep them. It will not be surprising if many inbound or outbound passengers try to get out of the airport as soon as they can. What a shame to the country’s airport, named after the father of the current President Noynoy Aquino III.

One of the latest controversies that hound the immigration department was the printed arrival and departure cards that feature cosmetic surgeon Vicky Belo. This comes after the same set of cards were printed with the photo of President Aquino. The President balked at seeing his photo on the card before boarding his flight to the United States. But Belo is a willing replacement, so immigration officials were possibly laughing their way to the bank.

Not so fast, cowboys.

The card shows Belo in white medical gown wearing her signature smile and a tagline that carries the credential that her clinic has “20 years of making people beautiful”. While the image itself presents commercial nature, the fine print further persuades holders to visit one of the Belo clinics for an exclusive offer: present the card — now termed a coupon — for a 10% discount on non-surgical procedures.

In the Philippines, it is not unusual to see government facilities littered with promotional items from commercial interests. When I arrived in Davao airport, all I see are ads of Smart Communications, one of the leading mobile communications companies in the country. There is one at the airport bridge. Another at the glass windows. Finally, there are signs, banners and tarpaulins bearing the logo and proclaiming the city is a Smart city. No wonder at the back of Belo ads in the immigration cards are Microtel Hotel and Resorts and Mall of Asia promotions.

As the Philippines tries to get that share of medical tourism market, Belo ads hit bulls eye when it comes to finding the ideal place to promote its services. Everyone who enters the Philippine territory by air is required to fill up the form: balikbayans, overseas Filipino workers, foreign tourists and businessmen. They are the prime targets of Belo’s services: generally affluent group of people who can afford such method of self-indulgence.

But sorry to ruin the party, such ad laden departure and arrival cards were scrapped for good. If it were allowed a few months, it could push revenues of Belo medical business to the roof and usher a major recruitment drive to attend to the demands of the business.

In contrary, our neighbors never tried to vandalize their immigration cards with ads. Or if they do, it’s not that obvious. Maybe because it’s a crime to do so, or they just didn’t feel morally correct serving their business above the country’s interests. But that can’t be said in the Philippines, at least to the officer-in-charge of the Bureau of Immigrations Ronaldo Ledesma, who has nothing against the celebrity dermatologist’s picture being printed on the cards, but stressed that the BI should have been consulted first.

While the idea of putting ads on public documents like departure/arrival cards don’t seem right, I think it’s wrong to immediately pin the blame on offices who allow these things to happen. Lack of government budget is one big reason why officials resort to these tactics that possibly present win-win situations. A big mall could sponsor the construction of a classroom or an energy drink company agreeing to shoulder the expenses of the Philippine team in an international sports event. But as a business, these corporations want some sort of return of their investment assistance.

Let’s take a look at the immigration cards from other countries and compare it with ours.

THAILAND

INDIA

CHINA

VIETNAM

MYANMAR

Photo credits:
* http://www.travelindiasmart.com/arriving.php
* http://www.nextstopbangkok.com/arriving
* http://www.havefuninchina.com
* http://www.flickr.com/photos/preetamrai/
* http://tourism.goldenlandpages.com