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Today, 27 Jan 05
Is Singapore still special to tourists?
by Prithpal Singh

Among the many challenges ahead, making hospitality an intrinsic part of our culture is crucial

Like most people I was glad to hear that Singapore was targeting to triple annual tourism income to $30 billion and double visitor arrivals to 17 million all within a decade. But I wondered if we were not being brashly optimistic.

Let's put things in perspective. The Hong Kong Tourism Board has estimated that the US$1.8 billion ($3 billion) Hong Kong Disneyland, scheduled to open soon after 12 years of construction, will add HK$50 billion ($10.5 billion) per year to the economy. This means that for us to achieve the $30 billion target we must have something of the scale and attraction of Hong Kong Disneyland twice over, attract an additional 5 million visitors from China alone and still look for much more than the $2 billion already allocated to the Tourism Development Fund.

Hitting the tourism targets will be a daunting task. Let's be realistic.

Is there something truly unique about Singapore compared with New York, Los Angeles and Sydney which are more multiracial and more cosmopolitan than our island state? Would more visitors head for our shores when themed attractions and casinos are built all around Singapore? Can we hope to attract another 8.5 million visitors?

It is true that we were unique not so long ago, but over the last 10 years, there has been a lack of any significant tourism product development. Undoubtedly, we can create new attractions and upgrade existing amenities, but the biggest challenge will be to get every Singaporean to truly embrace tourism and get into the hospitality mode, the way the people of Hawaii have done, for example.

A more long term and endearing solution to our tourism prospects will depend very much on making hospitality an intrinsic part of Singaporean culture. While we have been busy building the physical tourism landscape, the typical warm Asian hospitality we once had has diminished over the last 30 years of industrial growth. Another challenge is how to make the reconnect for people disenfranchised from the very industry on which Singapore's future depends.

In Singapore, what is urgently needed is to sustain those qualities for example, our multi-ethnicity and colonial heritage that used to attract visitors, and which gave us a "market value".

It's ironic that the same things that are cherished by the host population are also those things that visitors enjoy - the intangible aspects of a place such as its history, its cultural experiences and expressions, community, societal behaviours, smells, sounds, colours, all amalgamating into a pulsating entity.

Visitors travel in search of this special feeling. They may not be able to describe it but when they find it, they cherish it and go home and tell their friends all about it. This is what makes a destination unique not grandiose buildings.

We need to create a model to cater for the aspirations of the tourist visitor, as well as the local population, in relation to destination Singapore. Such a model will have to include what can only be called the soul of Singapore, which has vanished and visitors can sense that.

In my many years in the tourism business, I've heard these words "... but the people were warm and friendly and they were, oh, so helpful ...." to describe many a less-than-salubrious tourist destination. And these are places tourists flock to.

Hopefully, we will also hear these words used to describe Singapore more often all over the world.

The writer, who is vice-president of Hotel Properties Ltd, wrote this article in his personal capacity. If you have a view on this, email us at news@newstoday.com.sg

Links
Travellers' view of ubin Ubin: an antidote to sterile Singapore? What do visitors find uniquely Singapore? From these excerpts, it appears that Pulau Ubin is a delightful surprise to some visitors. And that it softens Singapore's image as a sterile destination no different from other major cities.

 

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