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From domestic tourism to selling bird's nest and seafood, travel firms pull out the stops to beat hard times

SINGAPORE — With overseas holiday plans shelved, Singaporeans had a “new experience” anyway last month when they engaged with Dynasty Travel online. The travel agency was selling wellness products such as bottles of bird’s nest drinks and tubs of herbal jelly around the Father’s Day period.

From domestic tourism to selling bird's nest and seafood, travel firms pull out the stops to beat hard times

Let’s Go Tour Singapore, which offers offshore trips to floating farms, is planning to hold a seafood cooking class.

  • Travel agencies have had to reinvent operations as business comes to near-standstill
  • Some are keeping potential customers engaged for travel in 2021; others are selling food products or offering virtual tours 
  • A number of agencies had to shut; one laid off a quarter of its workforce
  • Many travel agencies specialising in inbound tours find STB’s S$45 million campaign helpful 
  • Those doing outbound tours said that tapping domestic market will not be viable 

 

SINGAPORE — With overseas holiday plans shelved, Singaporeans had a “new experience” anyway last month when they engaged with Dynasty Travel online.

The travel agency was selling wellness products such as bottles of bird’s nest drinks and tubs of herbal jelly around the Father’s Day period.

It was one of a handful of companies in the travel industry that have had to explore unconventional ways to diversify revenue streams and keep afloat.

Others are turning their attention to Singapore residents rather than foreigners and planning visits to places such as the Southern Islands. This includes Let’s Go Tour Singapore, which recently launched a new boating tour that explores Singapore’s floating fish farms or kelongs. 

Let’s Go Tour Singapore founder Robin Loh said that his Let’s Go Kelong Tour provides an experience that few Singaporeans have had. He has also started to sell seafood via his online shop Under Da Boat, and a seafood cooking class is in the pipeline.

“For the local market, you really need to look at what you want to offer and you have to target a specific audience. If you come up with a generic tour, it will not fly,” he added. 

Travel agencies and businesses related to the travel industry have been suffering badly due to the Covid-19 crisis and companies have had to reinvent and remodel their operations.

Some are providing virtual tours for overseas customers, or keeping potential customers engaged on social media or helping them plan for travel in 2021.

The Government is digging in to encourage people to rediscover Singapore, as the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), together with trade agency Enterprise Singapore and Sentosa Development Corporation, which manages Sentosa Island, launched a S$45 million tourism campaign to drive demand for domestic tourism. 

The nine-month-long campaign, named SingapoRediscovers, will offer consumers “unique and value-for-money experiences, packages and promotions” to discover Singapore, they said.

A LIFE LINE

Speaking to TODAY, Mr Steven Ler, president of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas), said that the push for domestic tourism is a “vital step” toward the revival of the tourism industry as a whole.

“This will be an opportune time for travel agents... to recalibrate and come up with new and innovative experiences.”

Among 13 travel agencies contacted by TODAY, some are glad that the campaign will help raise awareness of the deals and packages for domestic tours.

Travel agencies that specialise in providing inbound tours are especially looking to the campaign and its mass marketing efforts to drum up demand. 

Several agencies said that they are working on plans to collaborate with STB, with operators such as Indie Singapore Tours actively pitching its deals. 

A travel agent that has already secured a partnership under the campaign is Tribe Tours. It is offering an “instacation” — a portmanteau coined from the firm’s “instawalk” tours and the staycation packages offered by its partner lyf Funan Singapore, a hotel located in Funan Mall.

Its two-hour “instawalk” tour covers the Bugis, Waterloo Street, as well as Kampong Glam areas and will be led by a tour guide and a social media influencer who has a small following on Instagram.

Mr Law Yock Song, head of partnerships and business development at Tribe Tours, said that the tour’s purpose is to let participants rediscover Singapore in an in-depth way, learn about its history and capture some Instagram-worthy memories.

While tours may be conducted, regulations pertaining to safe distancing and crowd management still stay, so agencies are not allowed to have more than five people in a group and to limit tours to two hours, for example.

Many travel firms see this as a hurdle.

Mr Toh Thiam Wei, founder of Indie Singapore Tours, is trying his best to accept the new norm and rules. Before the pandemic, his tours easily ran above three hours, with tour groups as large as 150, he said. 

The travel agents also mentioned that Singapore’s small geographical size is not going to give much room to increase earnings when tours have to be just two hours, compared with longer weekend trips to neighbouring countries.

Independent tour guide Leo Loo said: “(In places like) Indonesia, you can travel from Jakarta to Bali via a three-hour flight and stay at Bali for the long weekend. For us, going to Chinatown is a two-hour trip.” 

NOT EASY TO SWITCH

Then, there are the travel agencies that specialise in outbound tours. They said that the campaign will be less beneficial to them. 

Mr Robert Stables, country manager of STA Travel, said: “While it appears to be a great initiative… unfortunately, as a predominantly outbound travel agency, we don’t believe it’ll have a material impact on our business.

Other agencies dealing with overseas travel sang the same tune, saying that it was not viable for them to remodel their business structure and switch to dabbling in domestic tourism because of the lack of expertise in the area. 

Ms Sheryl Lim, founder of online travel agency Travel Wander, told TODAY that many firms such as hers do not have local tour guide licences and so, will not be able to conduct domestic tours. 

DOWNSIZING, COPING WITH FALLOUT

As Covid-19 continues to exact a massive economic toll on businesses and strict travel regulations remain, some travel agencies have had to downsize in order to reduce operating costs.

STA Travel has had to shed a quarter of its workforce here and now has just 20 people on hire. At the same time, it is exploring every opportunity to bring new business in or have new revenue streams. 

STB told TODAY that between Feb 1 and July 21 this year, 15 travel agents have stopped operating.

Of the 15, eight indicated that they had to close the business because of Covid-19, while the rest gave various reasons such as change in business focus and retirement.

However, STB said that the rate of business exits has remained “fairly consistent”, with an average of 120 to 140 travel agents withdrawing their licence voluntarily every year for various reasons. Singapore has 1,196 licensed travel agencies.

Other agencies that have not retrenched any workers have been retraining their employees.

Ms Alicia Seah, director of public relations and communications at Dynasty Travel, said that the firm has embarked on programmes to upskill the “knowledge competencies” of its employees in order to be “future-ready”.

Two other agencies, Travel Corporation and Travel Wander, said that they are focusing on preparing customers to travel in 2021. 

Travel Corporation said that it is updating its health and hygiene protocols for when outbound travel may resume.

Travel Wander holds Facebook Live sessions to introduce destinations and to keep potential clients engaged for the future, while Asia Travel Group conducts virtual tours.

Mr Kenneth Lim, STB’s director of travel agent and tourist guides, said that it is “closely monitoring the impact of Covid-19 on travel agents” and will continue to support them. 

There is also a 90 per cent reduction in the minimum financial requirement for agents holding general or niche licences.

Registered agents must have a minimum paid-up capital of S$50,000 for niche licences or S$100,000 for general licences, and a net value of the same amount.

“These are on top of the economy-wide measures available to travel agents, including the…  enhanced Job Support Scheme, which provides wage support for resident employees,” Mr Lim said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misspelt the name of STA Travel country manager Robert Stables. We are sorry for the error.  

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