Merry Customs and a Happy Customs!

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How to drive away visitors
By Ana Marie Pamintuan

December 7, 2011

Five times a week Zest Air flies between Kalibo International Airport in Aklan and Seoul-Incheon Airport in South Korea.

Each direct flight, which takes nearly four hours, carries an average of 180 Korean tourists, a number of them couples planning a honeymoon in Boracay.

It takes each group up to two-and-a-half hours to clear Customs. Why? Every checked-in luggage is opened, in search of what, no one is sure. Seoul has not been a source of guns or drugs. It is not a jump-off point for terrorists or Pinoy drug mules.

The opening of luggage is not just a hassle but can be embarrassing for newlyweds. Who wants one’s honeymoon undergarments being pawed by Customs employees, for all to see?

Foreign travelers have complained that the Customs personnel aren’t looking for contraband, but $10 to $20 per passenger who wants to be left in peace to proceed to the powdery white sand of Boracay.

On at least one occasion, a traveler related that a Customs inspector was willing to settle for just $2. (That’s still equivalent to nearly P100.) So I guess this “facilitation fee” is not among the latest impositions on travelers and the aviation industry by government finance officials.

This is a complaint of the Koreans, but other foreigners might have also experienced it. This could be among the reasons for that observation in a budget travel website, which recently ranked the NAIA as the world’s worst, about extortion in our airports.

Unless someone recorded a Customs shakedown in Kalibo on a mobile phone, however, higher authorities may just have to take the visitors’ word for it. The international airport in Kalibo, gateway to one of the country’s top tourist destinations, has no CCTV, which probably emboldens Customs personnel to harass arriving passengers.

There is also no CCTV at Clark International Airport in Pampanga, which authorities are considering to convert into the principal gateway to Metro Manila. The absence of video recording must have inspired a Customs employee to ask an outbound Korean traveler recently to pay tax on a handful of golf balls he had bought in Manila. The Korean went out of the airport, handed over the balls to a friend, and returned to the departure area to avoid further harassment at Customs.

This is not the first time that Korean travelers have run into such problems while visiting the Philippines. Tourists in Southeast Asia usually visit several adjacent countries: Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam. Occasionally, these tourists proceed to the Philippines, bringing with them souvenirs and personal stuff that they have bought in duty-free shops in other countries.

At our airports, they are told that they have to pay taxes on their newly bought Louis Vuitton bags and similar items, even if they are staying here for only a few days. Most decide to deposit the goods for safekeeping at the airport. A number of them have reported that upon their departure, the goods are no longer returned to them. As the tourists are already set to leave, no formal police complaint is made, and the loss is simply charged to experience.

All that such visitors have with them is the ugly memory of their loss, plus the resolve not to return to this country.

That can only be bad news for our tourism industry, whose sustainability and growth depend on the testimonies of satisfied customers and return business.

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In all my years of travel overseas, I have never had my checked-in luggage opened. It simply goes through regular security checks, and I retrieve it at the end of the flight. At worst, I have to line up and take the luggage through another x-ray scanner at Customs, where personnel ask arriving passengers if they have anything to declare, and then let dogs and machines do the rest of the work.

The only ugly experiences I remember in this process are at airports in the United States, particularly in Los Angeles, whenever I have to retrieve my luggage and transfer it to a local connecting flight. The baggage handlers in these transfer areas should be called mishandlers. They slam your luggage as hard as they can on the conveyor belt, as if to make sure they would succeed in breaking something. Airport shuttle drivers are no different, especially in New York.

But I’ve never been bothered by US Customs personnel at the arrival area. Not even at the height of the terrorist jitters in the first weeks after 9/11.

On the other hand, returning from Austria last month, I was appalled to see no one manning the two spots marked “nothing to declare” at the NAIA Customs area. All the other spots were marked either with the red “goods to declare” signs or for returning overseas Filipino workers.

So I went through the red lane, after asking the woman behind the counter if I could do that even if I had nothing to declare. She said yes, and then promptly asked me if I had anything to declare. She asked if I had bought anything overseas, so I said of course, didn’t everyone? Anything in commercial quantity? No, I replied. Did my luggage look big enough to contain anything in commercial quantity, unless I was transporting diamonds or jewelry, which then should have shown up at luggage security check? Any electronics? What’s the purpose of that detailed Customs arrival declaration form that everyone has to fill out?

I was finally waved through. After a grueling flight from Europe, I probably looked ready to bite someone’s head off.

These hassles at Customs are on top of all the others that travelers must go through upon arrival at our country’s premier gateway.

At Terminal 1, NAIA authorities must straighten out the chaos at the arrival parking lot. That’s the country in a microcosm: everyone doing his own thing, with no one directing the flow of traffic or positioning of parked vehicles. Beggars jump at unaccompanied travelers as they push their heavy luggage cart, demanding to do the pushing for a fee. If the traveler says no, the beggars bang on his vehicle (or scratch it) even as he drives out of the parking lot. That’s a paid parking area, so why can’t order be imposed? Why are these things impossible to do in this country?

With this sorry state of affairs, when the new tourism chief says he envisions 10 million foreign visitors here by 2016 from this year’s expected 3.78 million, I can only wish him good luck.

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