HCMC losing millions by banning billboards on buses

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A bus departs at the East Station in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Mai Vong

Ho Chi Minh City is squandering away potentially millions of dollars a year by not allowing advertising on public buses, analysts said.

For the last 10 years it has been the only city in Vietnam to ban advertisements on public vehicles despite its large expenditure on fare subsidies which rose to VND1.5 trillion (US$71.73 million) last year.

It reconsidered a 2002 ban in October 2011, commissioning two agencies, Hanoi-based construction joint stock company Vision and the city's own Public Transport Management Center, to draft plans to advertise on public buses, but nothing has come of it.

The center's director, Le Hai Phong, said the company has not contacted his center yet.

Transport officials expressed impatience with the state of affairs, especially at a time when expenditure on public transport keeps increasing, not to mention VND2 trillion ($95.64 million) the city will need by 2015 to replace 1,680 old buses.

Le Trung Tinh, former head of the Department of Transport's management office, said his office submitted a plan on advertising on buses to the People's Committee five years ago when he was still in office.

The plan estimated annual revenues of at least $5 million if space was rented out on 3,200 buses in the city, he said, adding the number is likely higher now.

Phung Dang Hai, general director of the Ho Chi Minh City Transport Cooperative Union which owns more than 700 public buses, said a fifth of the amount would be enough for its members to make regular upgrades to stations, facilities, and engines that emit black exhaust fumes.

But the committee cited various reasons to discard the plan.

It argued, and has been doing so ever since despite support for allowing advertising from both transport experts and city lawmakers, that billboards would mar the city's looks and distract drivers.

But critics point out that many old buses are already ugly and existing billboards have caused no harm in the form of distraction.

The committee's concern is "unnecessary and unconvincing," Dr. Nguyen Huu Nguyen of the Southern Economic Research Center told Saigon Tiep Thi newspaper.

There are regulations on the size of advertisements on buses and against offensive images in public places, so the city only has to set up a group to monitor the ads, he said.

He said the advantage of advertising on buses is that the vehicles are moving constantly, increasing visibility for advertisers. "Advertisement companies will rush in if the city greenlights this."

The city-based Vietnam Advertising Company said it sells space on 60 percent of the 1,000 public buses in Hanoi.

Some buses traveling to HCMC from neighboring Dong Nai, Binh Duong, and Long An provinces also have advertisements and they make the city more colorful and modern rather than ugly, Saigon Tiep Thi quoted a company executive as saying.

Advertising on public buses is popular in most countries in the world, and is emerging as a trend in Vietnam as well, it further quoted the person as saying.

Nguyen said: "It is a resource that needs to be tapped right away. The more we wait, the more we will squander."

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