Call to revive Arab Street fortune

SINGAPORE - Come the weekend, the cafes and hipster boutiques on Bussorah Street and Haji Lane in Kampong Glam are a hive of activity.

But the same cannot be said for Arab Street, once a main attraction of the conservation district, which includes Baghdad and Kandahar streets.

The fading crowds have threatened the livelihoods of the mostly textile shops in this historic precinct, with some shopkeepers reporting a 40 per cent drop in sales from a year ago.

Now, the Kampong Glam Business Association (KGBA) plans to approach the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) next week after Hari Raya Puasa to discuss ways to bring the sparkle back to this jewel in its crown.

"I personally believe Kampong Glam has lots more potential to grow," said KGBA president Saeid Labbafi, whose family runs nine carpet and handicraft businesses in Arab Street.

The 60-member KGBA has five requests.

It wants a shuttle bus service between Orchard Road, Arab Street and Chinatown to facilitate tourist flow.

It also wants a tourist information counter in Kampong Glam, signs to introduce historic shophouses, and more ATMs to help make shopping easier for tourists. Lastly, it would like lights in the area during the festive season of Ramadan.

Since Kampong Glam gained conservation status in 1989, the Urban Redevelopment Authority has forbidden bars and nightclubs from operating in Arab Street in order to retain its historic charm.

The dwindling number of tourists and rent increases have also contributed to its decline, said tenants.

Six months ago, rent increased by more than 50 per cent for Al-Sheikh Carpets' owner, Mr Sheikh Arif Latif, to $8,500.

"Locals go to the mosque and then leave. They don't shop much," said Mr Liyakath Ali, a co-owner of Alibaba Textiles.

Ms Hoo Tiew Fang, who works at her family business, Aik Bee Textile, quipped that customers have all moved on to the casinos.

About four years ago, the KGBA encouraged tenants to clean up their shopfronts to make them more appealing and change their business hours.

"A lot of shops have opened on Sunday and public holidays since last year," said Mr Labbafi.

He has lowered the $250 KGBA membership fee to $50 since he became president to get more members on board.

Mr Poh Chi Chuan, director of Cultural Precincts and Tourism Concept Development at STB, told The Sunday Times it welcomed proposals that will "best showcase Kampong Glam's eclectic mix of heritage and hip offerings to locals and visitors alike".

But the association has its work cut out as competition for the tourist dollar has only become fiercer.

A resident in the area, Ms Christy Teo, said she hardly ever ventures to Arab Street. "It seems run-down, and set back in time," she said.

"With more new tourist attractions such as the River Safari and integrated resorts, a tourist's time in Singapore is stretched," said Associate Professor Ang Swee Hoon from the department of marketing at the National University of Singapore Business School.

The average tourist stays four days and three nights, said tourist guide Tony Tan. "They spend more time at large venues and less in neighbourhoods," he noted.

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