Trying times for smaller, older tourist attractions

The dwindling number of tourists coming to Singapore and competition from newer attractions have hit older and smaller establishments here.

The Association of Singapore Attractions (ASA) said half of its 70 members - mostly owners of older and smaller attractions - are seeing an average dip of 20 per cent in visitor numbers over the past year.

The newer and more nimble players have been snatching a larger slice of the pie, said ASA chairman Kevin Cheong.

For example, the number of visitors to Gardens by the Bay grew 36 per cent last year. Universal Studios Singapore pulled in 5.2 per cent more visitors last year, compared with 2013.

There are also more attractions now. Madam Tussauds Singapore, the Trick Eye Museum and the Alive Museum all opened last year, for example. Theme park KidZania Singapore is slated to open in the third quarter.

Meanwhile, tourist arrivals have fallen from 15.6 million in 2013 to 15.1 million last year - the first drop since 2009. There were 2.4 million visitors in the first two months of this year, a 5 per cent decline year on year.

"It is a turning point. In the past, there were fewer attractions and there was a boom in tourist arrivals. Now, times are much tougher," said Mr Cheong.

Most ASA members are starting to realise they need to innovate, he added. Previously, a tourist attraction would undergo a major revamp every five to seven years. Now, said Mr Cheong, attractions must revamp and re-engineer their products every year.

ASA and the Workforce Development Agency are rolling out a programme in July for top managers, to help them with ideas on breathing new life into their attractions and engaging visitors with new experiences.

At the Tourism Industry Conference earlier this month, Singapore Tourism Board (STB) chief executive Lionel Yeo asked the industry to think of how it could "better meet the needs of the increasingly discerning traveller".

Ngee Ann Polytechnic tourism lecturer Michael Chiam told The Straits Times that, to survive in today's cut-throat climate, smaller and older establishments must "update their offerings" to keep up with tourists' wants.

STB's Mr Yeo held up the Skyline Luge on Sentosa as a good example. It is a small attraction that "constantly rejuvenates" itself - a new trail and lights - to grow overall revenue year on year, despite the competitive landscape.

In contrast, "nothing has changed for some time" at the Butterfly Park & Insect Kingdom on Sentosa, said Mr Chiam. "You need events, talks, new species, refreshing offerings. If not, people will not return," he said.

The attraction was to have undergone a $6 million overhaul in 2013 after visitor numbers fell from 300,000 in 2011 to 250,000 last year. But plans were shelved after its owners decided to invest elsewhere, said its business development director, Mr Chiang Zhan Xiang.

Attractions are not the only ones affected. A Straits Times check with 16 businesses dependent on tourists - from smaller attractions to souvenir shops - found that revenue has fallen for 14 of them, with several planning to close down. The remaining two said business has been stagnant.

Souvenir shop Ten to Ten Fashion in Orchard Plaza, which opened in 1994, will be shutting down by year-end. Owner Steven Loo said he sells only $10 worth of items some days, a situation that is not uncommon.

The 50-year-old started slashing prices of his souvenirs - mostly T-shirts, bags and fridge magnets - by half last year, but it did not help. He has also begged his suppliers to come up with more interesting souvenirs.

"I have no idea how to attract more tourists," he said, adding that business has fallen by over 70 per cent in the past two years.

Massage chain Kenko Wellness' fish spas at the Marina Bay Sands and Singapore Flyer saw business fall by 30 per cent in the past year.

"(The tourists) used to come in large group tours. All we had to do was work with travel agents to get onto their itineraries," said owner Jimi Tan. "Now, fewer tourists are booking tours and agencies are choosing other attractions. The free-and-easy tourists are also hard for us to target."

Parts of the two outlets have been converted into Internet cafes and discounts were given, in a bid to woo back the tourists.

Ngee Ann Polytechnic's Mr Chiam said souvenir shops need to think out of the box. "You get the same Merlion keychains, T-shirts, durian-flavoured chocolates. One souvenir shop is the same as the other. It's a wonder they even survived this long," he said.

Department store Robinsons is one that has taken steps to tackle the challenges. It hosted tennis star Maria Sharapova's meet-and-greet at its store in The Heeren last October. The department store will start accepting China UnionPay credit cards from September, and tour groups will get free beauty treatments. A new exhibition showcasing the store's 157-year history will also open at The Heeren in August.

"We figured we need to do more to stand out from the competition," said a spokesman.

This article was first published on April 20 2015.
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