When 'local is focal' can boost tourism

Amid a roaring global tourist boom that saw the world register 1.1 billion arrivals in 2014, Singapore's own visitor arrivals dipped somewhat last year, though it still managed to reel in 15 million tourists.

Analysts seeking granularity in data will read these indicators circumspectly, while ordinary Singaporeans might simply ask if the island is starting to lose its shine as a haven for tourists.

As couched by the tourism authority, demand is being affected by a "challenging market environment".

The Republic is not alone in wanting a fair share of global receipts of over US$1.4 trillion (S$1.9 trillion) from tourism.

In the region, strong contenders include Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Each has its value propositions, but these alone do not always hold sway.

One must acknowledge external factors which can at times play decisive roles.

For example, the depreciating rupiah and ringgit saw a slide in visitors from Indonesia and Malaysia, which affected mass-market volumes and squeezed Singapore casino gaming revenues.

The mix of such factors points to the need for a strategic approach to tourism development.

Old notions of tourism promotion based on, say, running ads or supporting isolated local events, like the recent world street food nosh-up, are taking a back seat to fresh thinking on how partnerships can be forged and key economic clusters can be harnessed.

The Mice industry, comprising meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions, is an attractive niche, but the Republic must go beyond being an "efficient and effective venue" to becoming "a catalyst for business success", as Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang once noted.

Similarly, the airport needs to graduate from being a top-notch transport facility to becoming a tourist attraction in itself.

Towards that end, Changi Airport Group and CapitaMalls Asia are building a mall at the airport with a five-storey garden, featuring a towering waterfall, and thousands of trees and plants lining a valley that visitors can hike up in air-conditioned comfort.

It is not just a case of executing concepts on a grand scale, of course, but of also leveraging local themes in refreshing ways.

A proportion of tourist venues, represented by the Association of Singapore Attractions, are seeing a fall of 20 per cent in visitors over the past year, in the face of competition from new offerings, like Marina Bay Sands' Segway Tours.

Renewed pride and confidence in local flavours, together with finesse in curating content - especially in a Golden Jubilee year - can make a crucial difference.

With Changi Airport and the Singapore Tourism Board planning to showcase local brands and cultures in terminals, homegrown entrepreneurs should make the most of such efforts.

This article was first published on April 22, 2015.
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