SINGAPORE — While the humidity and heat may have bathed them in sweat, Australians Bryan and Christine Mansfield were smiling as they made their way to the Gardens by the Bay on Thursday (May 4).
Their three-day holiday in Singapore marked the start of their golden jubilee celebrations — one that had been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Singapore is always a layover stop for Australians looking to travel. The flights were cheaper than if we went straight to Bali, so we finally took the opportunity to stay here and travel,” said Mr Mansfield, who is in his 70s.
The couple are headed to Bali on Sunday before returning home Down Under.
Like other tourists who spoke to TODAY, Singapore was their first foreign destination since 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic ground international travel to a halt.
However, the island is but a layover for them before they head to their main destinations, mostly within the Southeast Asian region.
For Japanese tourist Saori Akamatsu, a 30-second advertisement by Japanese telco Softbank was what put Singapore on her map.
The 2011 advertisement featured J-pop band SMAP at the Marina Bay Sands’ SkyPark observation deck dancing, and ended with a view of the Merlion backdropped by the Marina Bay.
And with social media posts from other friends who had visited Singapore, the city-state’s futuristic-like architecture finally convinced Ms Akamatsu to take the flight for a three-day trip.
“Our friends talk about how clean and green Singapore is, but you don’t see how clean Singapore is (until you) visit,” said the 30-year-old purchaser at a manufacturing firm.
From Singapore, Ms Akamatsu and her friend will head for their final destination, the Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur.
Tourists such as Ms Akamatsu and the Mansfields are flocking back to Singapore a year after it reopened its borders and relaxed its Covid-19 restrictions. Amid increasing visitor arrivals, industry experts are predicting that tourist numbers will reach pre-pandemic levels by end-2024.
In the first quarter of this year, Singapore had 2.91 million visitor arrivals, with 1.02 million visitors in March alone.
Should the numbers continue to rise for the rest of the year, experts predict tourist arrivals will likely be between 12 million and 14 million, surpassing 2022’s 6.31 million figure but still below the record 19.1 million who visited Singapore in 2019.
However, the average length of stay in the first quarter of this year is 3.97 days, just slightly higher than 2019’s average of 3.36.
MORE PURPOSEFUL TRAVEL POST-COVID
For 80-year-old Australian Julie Broderick and her friend, Jennifer Carson, 58, Singapore is a four-day-long stopover before they head to Paris, France.
While it is Ms Carson’s first trip here, Ms Broderick is familiar with Singapore, having first visited the island by ship in 1965, the year it gained independence.
“(Jennifer) wasn’t even born yet when I first came to Singapore… I’ve seen the way this country has grown and beaten the odds. Every time there’s something new and different, that’s why I’m always excited to bring family and friends,” said Ms Broderick, a retiree.
She may not be able to recall the number of times she has been here, but Ms Broderick remembers fondly her solo trip to Singapore while in her 70s before the pandemic.
“It’s extremely safe here… Everyone is friendly, it’s so clean and amazing,” she said.
Women who travel solo, like Ms Broderick did in an earlier trip, have been described as a “rich area of opportunity (for Singapore) to tackle” by STB’s current chief executive Keith Tan during the STB Tourism Industry Conference 2023 on April 5.
In response to queries from TODAY then, Mr Chang Chee Pey, assistant chief executive of STB’s marketing group, said the board has crafted 10 traveller portraits that represent the country’s target audience. They are:
Special Occasion TravellerActive Holiday PlannerFamily GetawaysEntertainment SeekerOutdoor AdventurerCity ExplorerSports-Mad NomadCulinary ExplorerWork-life IntegrationWellness Seeker
While female solo travellers are not among the 10, their needs are captured in some of these portraits, added Mr Chang.
In response to TODAY’s queries, a STB spokesman said on Saturday (May 6) that the 10 traveller portraits “take into account prevalent travel interests, booking preferences, motivations and behaviour, which we expect to evolve over time”.
“A key pillar of STB’s marketing strategy is to tell a great Singapore story, in line with our ambition to deliver an impactful destination narrative,” the spokesman added.
“As we roll out our brand campaigns, the 10 traveller portraits allow us to be more targeted in our marketing. They ensure we deliver relevant and compelling stories and content to our target audience, and increase their likelihood of visiting Singapore.”
The target profiles are on top of four demographic segments that STB had identified in 2017 as marketing targets: Families with Kids, Early Careers, Established Careers and Active Silvers.
“These segments remain relevant as they have good growth potential, and their needs can be addressed by Singapore,” the spokesman said.
To TODAY’s query on whether STB is concerned that the additional 10 target profiles would dilute Singapore’s image as a destination, the spokesman said the introduction of the 10 portraits “enriches our understanding of these four demographic segments”.
It also “sharpens the way we tell our Singapore story and the identification of relevant channels”.
“The destination narrative will continue to highlight what Singapore stands for, our people and our stories,” the spokesman added.
The focus on these 10 tourist profiles comes at a time of leadership changes for STB.
The Government announced this week that Ms Melissa Ow, executive vice-president for customer experience, marketing and investment facilitation group at the Economic Development Board will take over as STB chief executive on June 1 from Mr Tan.
Mr Chang will be stepping down on June 6. He will be succeeded by Mr Kenneth Lim, STB’s executive director of marketing partnerships, planning and capability development.
At the STB Tourism Industry Conference 2023, Mr Tan had also shared the board’s outlook for Singapore’s tourism for 2023 and beyond, calling 2023 “the year we return to our pursuit of quality growth”.
To do so, STB said it will focus on 3 “Rs” — redefining our destination; reconnecting with our fans; and reinventing our industry.
The 3 “Rs” are timely, experts told TODAY, as travel habits have changed post-pandemic, and the tourism industry needs to adapt.
Mr Joydeep Chakraborty, chief strategy officer at travel platform Traveloka, said: “The pandemic has pushed a connected world, and travellers — with their tech savviness — are expecting more from the tourism industry.”
Noting how pandemic-induced lockdowns have had a positive impact on the natural environment, such as cleaner air, Mr Chakraborty said travellers are now more environmentally conscious and are keen to reduce their carbon footprint, for example.
Covid-19 had also cast a spotlight on mental health and personal well-being, which has transformed how people travel, said experts such as Ms June Ko, executive director and vice-president of International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Asia Pacific Operations.
“The limitation of travel during the pandemic has made individuals realise the intrinsic value of travel,” she said.
“The pandemic has reinforced the need for leisure, to travel and visit attractions as these activities allow people to relax, dive into new experiences and rediscover ways to be connected to others.”
When it comes to the length and type of travel people will opt for as Covid-19’s hold on the world wanes, experts told TODAY that single-destination trips are all the rage.
Revenge travel — to make up for lost time — is here to stay, albeit on a smaller scale, said Mr Christopher Khoo, the managing director of tourism consultancy MasterConsult Services.
“Don’t discount the power revenge travel will have on tourism as people are hungry to leave… I think it may continue as far as end-2024,” he said.
Renovation work at Tower 3, the hotel lobby and the SkyPark will begin after that.
While the IRs are enhancing their products, Dr Kevin Cheong, managing partner at Syntegrate, a tourism and destination development consultancy, noted that they could do more to better integrate themselves with neighbouring stakeholders.
“Resorts World Sentosa can be even more integrated with Sentosa, VivoCity and in the future, the Pulau Brani precinct (also known as the Greater Southern Waterfront) as a holistic destination; and, Marina Bay Sands, together with the Central Business District, Gardens by The Bay and Marina Bay, can work as an integrated multi-dimensional destination.”
This could create a more encompassing destination, which if packaged well, can encourage tourists to stay longer and to indulge in these different destinations within Singapore, Dr Cheong added.
IRs are not the only ones which need rejuvenation; other attractions must also constantly keep themselves refreshed, said experts.
Citing Bird Paradise — the upgraded former Jurong Bird Park — which is set to open on May 8 with much fanfare as an example, they said that this will keep tourists coming to Singapore again to see what are its latest offerings.
Such constant renewal is crucial for the tourism industry since Singapore’s small size limits its ability to build mega-attractions that are land intensive.
Mr Khoo added that the pandemic also has a part of play in the dwindling options of attractions to adapt in Singapore.
“Pre-pandemic, everyone was bubbling with ideas about the next new attraction… many ideas are adopted from around the world. But the pandemic put innovation on hold,” he said.
Mr Walton noted, however, that the issue of land constraint can be bypassed: “(An) interesting development is Disney announcing that its first cruise in Southeast Asia will set sail from Singapore — this is an example of how Singapore can have another attraction without taking up any more land — by being a port for these exciting cruise ships.”
In tandem with such upgrades, Singapore must also continue to improve its service quality and the overall experience for visitors, said Mr Khoo of MasterConsult Services.
“Look at our zoo, for example. People say they have a zoo at home too, and may question why visit Singapore’s? But we provide a different product with variations such as the Night Safari and River Wonders which makes us different and able to attract people,” he added.
And with a growing trend towards eco-tourism, Mr Chakraborty of Traveloka pointed out that nature-based recreation options such as nature and heritage learning journeys and low-impact eco-accommodations are included in Urban Redevelopment Authority’s long-term land use plan.
“Parts of the Southern Islands could be used to pilot new recreation and tourism concepts such as nature and heritage learning journeys, low-impact eco-accommodations and leisure activities, and over the next few decades, Sentosa and Pulau Brani will be transformed into a destination with leisure and tourism offerings,” he said.
Assoc Prof Ho of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy added that with land constraints, tapping into Singapore’s “software” in terms of its heritage and food culture could attract tourists.
“Much of our history and heritage is encapsulated in our cuisine — we can tell stories about the origins and special meaning that certain dishes have, and showcase the care and craft that go into creating dining experiences.
“It can be argued that Singapore food and culture has similarities with our neighbours, but what can set us apart is how we tell our food story in a way that is evocative and resonates with travellers,” he said.
In the same vein, experts said that Singapore’s push as a wellness hub needs some improvement by packaging relevant activities together.
“While this messaging is great, especially in terms of the green spaces that we have, it has not translated into personalised and specially curated wellness holiday programmes that visitors can and want to sign up for,” said Mr Cassim.
He added that various neighbouring countries have three to seven-day retreats that are combined and made easily available for tourists.
In Singapore, wellness activities come across as “just a series of disparate activities, programmes and green spaces that visitors can enjoy”, he said.
“The responsibility of when, how and the curation of the wellness experiences are pretty left in the hands of the visitor. We (Singapore) are also missing a ‘bucket list’ of urban wellness experiences that becomes a must-do experience for visitors.”
Dr Tuli added that Singapore cannot compete with lower-cost wellness activities such as spa treatments that are available in neighbouring countries like Thailand and Indonesia.
“That’s why it’s crucial to market ourselves and differentiate what we have to offer from other countries.”
This includes promoting Singapore’s wellness facilities as premium and luxurious.
Noting that wellness travellers spend more than the average traveller — 35 per cent more, according to a report by the Global Wellness Institute in 2021 — distinguishing Singapore’s wellness facilities from neighbouring countries is crucial, said Dr Wong King Yin, a senior lecturer in marketing at Nanyang Business School.
However, the image of Singapore as a wellness hub does not quite gel with a country associated with being fast-paced and high-pressure.
While changing perceptions can be a slow and arduous process, Dr Wong says Singapore is in the right direction and has the makings of a wellness hub.
It is easier to attract wellness tourists looking for medical services, considering Singapore’s image of professionalism and cleanliness. But for tourists looking for a balance between city life and wellness, Dr Wong said Singapore has an advantage it can leverage on — its image as a Garden City.
“We have our fast-paced city life, but that’s merged with pockets of nature and trees around which you can enjoy its beauty, relax and still appreciate… that is unique to Singapore,” she said.