Up the game as tourist numbers fall

Up the game as tourist numbers fall

From across Marina Bay, the iconic Marina Bay Sands integrated resort frames Gardens by the Bay's two glass domes perfectly - a sight that tourists now associate Singapore with.

Such attractions have pushed tourism here to record growth in the last decade. Visitor arrivals surged from 8.3 million in 2004 to 15.1 million last year - growth at a compounded annual rate of 6 per cent. The amount that tourists spent here surged a corresponding 9 per cent in the same period.

But such unprecedented expansion can no longer be matched: The age of slow growth is here.

In 2013, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) said it expected visitor arrivals to grow between 3 per cent and 4 per cent, and tourism receipts between 4 per cent and 6 per cent year on year for the next decade - a forecast that still stands.

Even meeting such low growth figures will be an uphill task.

Last year, the number of tourists coming here fell from 15.6 million in 2013 to 15.1 million - the first fall since 2009. Tourist spending remained flat.

This year is not looking much better. Visitor arrivals, the STB predicted, will grow by only between zero and 3 per cent, despite a $20 million campaign in the second half of the year to draw visitors here during the nation's Golden Jubilee.

Regional competition

CHALKING up 3 per cent to 4 per cent growth in tourist arrivals is going to be tough.

For one thing, there is intense regional competition for tourists.

Incheon Airport is planning a project benchmarked against Resorts World Sentosa here. It aims to lure Chinese tourists with a new casino, hotels and shopping centre. Two other integrated resorts there have already been approved.

These new attractions will likely propel South Korea's visitor arrivals - 14 million last year - to a much higher level.

In Taiwan, the growth of its nascent tourism industry - with nine million arrivals last year - is startling. Arrivals and spending have jumped more than 20 per cent year on year in recent years.

Mr Michael Chiam, a tourism lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic who has done research on tourism in Taiwan, said that the region is famous for its specialised tours, such as cycling, spa, eco-tourism and gourmet food tours.

The government there takes a hands-on approach, giving each county office funds to develop tourist programmes, such as bamboo handicraft classes in villages. It then packages them for travel agencies to simply tack on to their tour packages.

Dubai also plans to increase annual visitors to 20 million by the end of the decade, when it will host the World Expo 2020. A MasterCard survey indicates it will leapfrog Singapore in the number of international visitors by next year. Dubai's Mall of the World is also set for completion by 2020. In Shanghai, Universal Studios is scheduled to open next year; and the world's tallest twin towers are set to open in 2018 in Wuhan, China, featuring floating restaurants in globes.

In contrast, the World Travel and Tourism Council ranked Singapore 142nd out of 184 when it comes to long-term growth until 2024.

Manpower constraints

THE current labour crunch also places constraints on tourism growth. Tourism, a service industry, is very labour-intensive. Many hotels and restaurants are already under-manned.

Job vacancies in the accommodation and food service sector rose from 5,010 as at Sept 30, 2011, to 7,740 as at Sept 30 last year. Most vacancies had been open for at least six months.

Mr Kevin Bossino, area manager of hotel operator Accor Singapore, said the manpower shortage "puts a real strain on operations".

"It gets harder to provide the quality service that we aspire to. We are deemed to be an expensive city and service levels need to be on a par with what people are paying," he said.

The situation is set to worsen. In Parliament in March, Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin warned that the labour market would tighten further, with local employment growth set to slow dramatically in the next few years, dropping from a base of 95,000 last year to around 20,000 per annum in the last part of this decade.

The industry, which benefited from a tourism workforce growing 5.5 per cent year on year in the boom years, is unlikely to have that luxury going forward - a challenge that many competing nations, with their large supplies of low-cost workers, do not face.

Physical constraints

Then, there are the physical constraints.

To bump up visitor arrivals substantially, said tourism experts, Singapore could take a leaf from Las Vegas' book and keep building new attractions.

In the American resort city, the integrated resorts aggregated casino gaming, hotels, convention, retail, entertainment and food offerings. As each was added, the cluster effect - of additional attractions creating even more demand - grew exponentially.

The number of visitors to Las Vegas in 1990 was 21 million. Last year, it welcomed 41 million - most of them repeat visitors - according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

"To some extent, we have already done that here with attractions," said CBRE Hotels Asia-Pacific executive director Robert McIntosh. "But it is not easy to keep creating attractions on the scale of what has been done before. It also involves massive expenditure."

The Government, for instance, shells out some $90 million on average every year to co-fund the Formula One car race.

"We have reached a plateau with growing tourist arrivals... What additional attractions can we create here?" asked Mr McIntosh, adding that hotels here are running at close to full occupancy levels for most of the year. "There is often just no more room."

No doubt, introducing another mega attraction would bump up Singapore's visitorship, but playing that game would also put the Republic at the losing end - it faces the fundamental challenge of limited land resources and will be unable to compete in terms of scale and quantity with other countries in the region.

Quality, not quantity

DESPITE this gloomy prediction for the next decade, there are bright spots for growth.

Experts point to one solution: Focus on quality experiences to encourage tourists to spend more.

"We already have all the infrastructure, all we have to do is to create buzz with new programmes and events," said Mr Chiam. "It's not a bad position to be in."

Raw arrivals, said Fircroft's head of Asia-Pacific, Mr Dhirendra Shantilal, who used to help organise Mice (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) events here, are just one factor.

"What's key is how much time these visitors are in the country for and how much they are spending," he said. "As a destination, we must give tourists reasons to linger, to spend more."

"Look at the Orchard Road pedestrian night experience, this is an example of a local offering peppered with the Singapore flavour," he pointed out, adding that service levels can be raised. "We need to define what is truly unique about the Singapore experience and embed this firmly in the world's popular imagination."

So, how exactly can Singapore do this?

The industry, which has been resting on its laurels after the stellar tourism growth period, must evolve and offer more unique events and products.

Some of the big players have done just that. Despite its popularity, Universal Studios Singapore has not taken its foot off the pedal.

The theme park, which drew 5.2 per cent more visitors last year than in 2013, launched Puss In Boots' Giant Journey, the world's first roller coaster based on the popular Puss In Boots franchise. It also beefed up the line-up for its Halloween Horror Nights and Christmas celebrations this year.

In July, Singapore's Restaurant Month will be launched, where 50 restaurateurs will feature a new dish made of local produce.

Smaller players too need to get on board to offer a quality experience.

Mr Edwin Low, who owns a souvenir store at the Singapore Art Museum, came up with his own designs in 2013 when he realised there was a lack of "truly Singaporean" souvenirs.

All one could find were Merlion keychains and tacky T-shirts imported from China, said the founder of lifestyle store Supermama.

His products include miniature red plastic chairs that used to be a common sight in hawker centres, and porcelain plates inked with the ubiquitous Singapore image of a block of flats. His first batch of items was sold out in six months.

"In Singapore, many businesses just go for what earns them the widest profit margin," said Mr Low. "But when you make an item or create an event, think about how you want to represent Singapore culture.

"Every country is unique, every tourist wants to truly experience it and hear stories. We just have to show them what's here."

Mr Kevin Cheong, chairman of the Association of Singapore Attractions, said that most of its members are starting to realise the need to innovate.

"Last time, a tourist attraction would undergo renovations or relook its events calendar every five years. Now, they know they have to keep rethinking their product a few times a year," he said.


This article was first published on April 30, 2015.
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