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The Big Read in short: Tourism in the doldrums

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at how Singapore’s tourism industry is coping with the unprecedented slump in international travel. This is a shortened version of the full feature,.

The Big Read in short: Tourism in the doldrums

While local tour operators said that the push towards domestic tourism will provide them with some breathing space, they cited several challenges, such as a limited number of products and getting Singaporeans excited over local offerings.

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at how Singapore’s tourism industry is coping with the unprecedented slump in international travel. This is a shortened version of the full feature,​ which can be found here.

  • Many in S’pore have a pent-up desire for travel and can’t wait to get out of the country
  • But given the dearth of travel options, people here have been flocking to local attractions big and small
  • In July, the Government launched the S$45 million SingapoRediscovers campaign to encourage locals to support tourism businesses here
  • However, the enthusiasm for “domestic tourism” will not be sufficient by a long shot to revive an industry on its knees, said industry players and experts.
  • The tourism industry is an important pillar of the S’pore economy, contributing 4 per cent to its GDP. But it’s expected to take years to recover

 

SINGAPORE — Many people in Singapore have a pent-up desire for travel — people cannot wait to get out of the country even when there is no destination involved. Within a week of the Singapore Tourism Board’s (STB) announcement earlier this month that it would allow cruises to nowhere, bookings were snapped up.

In the absence of other travel options, people here have been flocking to local attractions big and small to satisfy their wanderlust. For example, families have been thronging to see the Changi Jurassic Mile dinosaur display between Changi Airport and East Coast Park since its opening on Oct 11, prompting Changi Airport Group to implement a booking system for weekend visitors.

However, the enthusiasm for “domestic tourism” will not be sufficient by a long shot to revive an industry on its knees, said industry players and experts.

LIMITS TO ‘REDISCOVERING S’PORE’

While local tour operators said that the push towards domestic tourism will provide them with some breathing space, they cited several challenges, such as a limited number of products and getting Singaporeans excited over local offerings.

Mr Toh Thiam Wei, the founder of walking tour company Indie Singapore Tours, said that the SingapoRediscovers campaign has helped to pique curiosity among Singaporeans who previously would not search for local tours.

He said that nearly all his clientele prior to the pandemic were made up of international tourists. While absolute numbers in enquiries in his tours had dropped during the circuit breaker which ended on June 1, he has seen a three-fold increase in queries from locals in the last two months.  

However, Mr Toh was quick to caution that these numbers may not represent an accurate picture since the starting base for local enquiries was low to begin with.

Mr Robin Loh, the founder of Let’s Go Tour Singapore, said that revenue for the tour company is now half of what it used to be during pre-pandemic times.

There is little interest in the company’s mainstay of bicycle tours. Instead, it has had to think out of the box and offer tours which appeal to locals such as a kelong boat tour and kampung walking tours.

Mr Loh said that the company has been “rewarded with a good take-up rate” for its new products. It runs four to five kampung walking tours every week since they started in mid-August. It has also been conducting six to eight boat tours a week since they were launched at the end of July.

Nevertheless, he was unsure how long he could sustain the company based on the domestic market alone.

“This is totally new ground for us, and (the tourism landscape) is very dynamic. We have no idea when everything will be back to normal,” he said.

Let’s Go Tour Singapore runs four to five kampung walking tours every week since they started in mid-August. The company has had to think out of the box and offer tours which appeal to locals. Photo: Reuters

Mr Sivakumar Rajendran, a 31-year-old communications executive, suggested that the SingapoRediscovers vouchers be bundled with promotions to entice more residents to explore the city. Unique experiences, such as a tour of the inner workings of the zoo provided by a zookeeper, could also be offered to encourage locals to revisit mainstay attractions, he added.

However, a Singaporean in his 60s, who wanted to be known only as Mr Tham, said that ultimately, it is practically impossible to replace the experience of travelling overseas.

“(Overseas travel) is a holistic thing. It’s the whole ambience, being in another culture and hearing a different language,” said Mr Tham, who works in a financial institution.

DOMESTIC MARKET ‘CAN’T SUSTAIN INDUSTRY BEYOND MID-2021’

The tourism industry is an important pillar of the Singapore economy, contributing 4 per cent to its gross domestic product (GDP).

However, the number of international visitors here have plunged from 1.69 million in January to just 8,912 in August, forcing some companies to throw in the towel.

To shore up the battered industry, the Government launched the S$45 million SingapoRediscovers campaign in July to encourage locals to support tourism businesses here and explore different sides of the island.

Next month, the Government is expected to announce details of the S$100 worth of vouchers which will be given at the end of the year to every Singaporean aged 18 and above, to be used on tickets for tourist attractions and tours, as well as for accommodation bookings at licensed hotels until June next year.

But with tourism receipts coming up to S$27.7 billion last year, it would be impossible for the S$320 million worth of SingapoRediscovers vouchers to replace the lost tourism receipts for this year, said Mr James Walton, Transport, Hospitality and Services Leader of Deloitte Singapore.

The vouchers are a short-term measure to “bring Singaporeans out of the malls and into domestic tourism”, and are only intended to last into the holiday season in December, he added.

Next month, the Government is expected to announce details of the S$100 worth of vouchers which will be given at the end of the year to every Singaporean aged 18 and above, to be used on tickets for tourist attractions and tours, as well as for accommodation bookings at licensed hotels until June next year. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

Mr Keith Tan, chief executive of STB, had also acknowledged the limits of the domestic tourism campaign during the launch of the campaign in July.

“This year, we do not expect domestic consumption to fill the hole left by the diminution of international travel,” he said.

“But what we hope to do is to create cushions … buy as much time as we can (for) businesses.”

STB chairman Chaly Mah had said on the sidelines of the Singapore Summit last month that the Government’s goal was to capture a tenth of the S$34 billion that Singaporeans spent for tourism overseas in 2018.

Mr Christopher Khoo, managing director of international tourism consultancy MasterConsult Services, said that this is a realistic goal, assuming that each Singaporean who receives a voucher spends an additional S$900.

With international travel only likely to return to pre-pandemic levels in three to five years, Mr Khoo said that in the short term, the tourism industry will undergo a transformation, with hotels, tour agencies and some attractions likely to give up their businesses for good.

In response to TODAY’s queries, STB’s Mr Tan said the agency has employed various measures such as the Jobs Support Scheme to support the industry.

The STB will also support businesses in their efforts to transform their business models and adopt digital solutions, he added.

He called on businesses to “act now” and train workers in skills and capabilities that will be sought in the new Covid-19 environment.

“By adapting to the new realities and accelerating their transformation, they will be better-positioned to capitalise on opportunities when recovery comes,” said Mr Tan.

OPERATORS CUT COSTS, TRY TO ADAPT

Several industry players told TODAY they are making plans to adapt to the current situation as well as changes in the sector in the long term.

Gardens by the Bay chief executive officer Felix Loh said that the attraction has taken “decisive steps” to reduce its costs and expenses, such as reducing their reliance on external contractors.

The Gardens is also reviewing its offerings in order to cater to the domestic market, such as by bringing back flagship events and floral displays in a safe and careful manner.

While Mr Loh said that the Gardens is unsure if it will succeed in reducing its financial burden with these new initiatives, it has planned for these changes to have longevity even beyond the pandemic.

Within the hospitality industry, Pan Pacific Hotels Group is rolling out a virtual meeting service where firms can hold virtual meetings with clients at hotels with all meeting amenities included.

With the all round uncertainty, industry watchers were divided on the prospects of Singapore tourism when international travel gradually returns to normal levels.

Calling himself an “optimist”, Mr Walton of Deloitte Singapore expects international travel to return to pre-Covid levels as early as 1.5 years from now.

However, Mr Khoo doubts that the number of international visitors to Singapore will return to pre-pandemic levels before the next decade.

The pandemic will also have a long-lasting impact on manpower and talent in the industry, which is set to undergo a challenging period.

The slump in tourism would result in people with relevant skills leaving the industry as firms downsize or fold, Mr Khoo said. Once lost, such skills — including the management of large-scale events — cannot be easily replicated by newcomers when the industry eventually gets back on its feet, he added.

With fewer manpower, service delivery in the tourism sector would suffer, said Dr Kevin Cheong, the chairman of the Association of Singapore Attractions (ASA). He suggested temporarily redeploying service staff to similar roles in other industries during the current slump.

STB’s Mr Tan told TODAY that the agency expects more jobs and businesses to be impacted in the coming months and even years.

“STB will continue to work closely with the tourism sector, and support businesses through this trying period by growing domestic demand, building confidence through our health and hygiene standards and encouraging them to innovate with new products and marketing,” he said.

Related topics

Covid-19 coronavirus travel tourism domestic tourism Singapore Tourism Board

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