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Torn up over tourism

How should Singapore present itself to the rest of the world? As a glitzy Dubai or a charming Penang? Singapore Tourism Board chief Lionel Yeo thinks we can be both and wants to ratchet up Singapore-flavoured offerings. It marks a change from the days when we were told to be enthusiastic about international attention on Formula One (Oh! Look at the numbers tuning in worldwide!) and how casinos will bring in the well-heeled.

Thing is, can we be both? Or is it already too late?

In the international eye, Singapore is probably more Dubai than Penang – efficient, fast-paced, haven for billionaires. Expensive clubs. Designer boutiques. Playground for the rich and famous. The tourism strategy has brought in a lot of money, as well as foreigners – both the spending kind and those needed to staff the low-wage positions in the hospitality industry. For the rest of us, we can only look in. Not rich enough to play; too rich to want a job tending bar and waiting tables. We might feel proud about how far we have come, as we cruise along the East Coast Parkway and gape at the skyline. We might even feel like tourists in our own country!

What about the new effort to display our local offerings then? Here’s the good: our local designers can expect a leg-up. Also, heritage and conservation, something increasingly dear to Singaporeans, will now have…. an economic dimension! We need to preserve them…because they bring in the tourists!

Okay, enough of that.

Anyway, that was what was reported in ST yesterday. Today, however, the media reported that at a tourism conference, expectations were scaled back on tourism numbers and spending in the future. That’s because those big ticket draws are already in place and have contributed to the spurt in numbers. A rising rate of growth would be “unsustainable’’. (Did anyone heave a sigh of relief at the propect of a not-as-crowded future?). Besides, neighbouring countries are also putting up theme parks and F1 races. Singapore’s first-mover advantage will be eroded.

Media reports said STB estimated that visitor arrivals could grow at 3 to 4 per cent and tourism receipts at 4 to 6 per cent annually over the next 10 years. This contrasts with the record growth posted between 2002 and last year, when visitor arrivals grew at a compounded annual rate of 6.6 per cent. Tourism receipts also grew at a corresponding 10 per cent in the same period.

According to Second Minister for Trade and Industry S Iswaran, Singapore should concentrate on “high-yield growth’’ (code words for big spenders) and those who come “regularly’’. He wants the industry to create more content for visitors in the lifestyle and business sectors. One example, according to ST, is the Fort Canning Centre and Black Box Theatre, which the STB and National Parks Board are looking at turning into a museum with modern art, for an Asian audience.

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One wonders if the big spenders will really be interested in experiencing the Singapore way of life and take tours of the HDB heartland and what not. As for those who “come’’ regularly, they would have “been there, done that’’.

Or maybe the new direction is just a marketing gimmick – to tell big spenders that besides the main showpiece of glitzy stuff, there are still those “curiosities’’ they might have missed. So why not have a cheng teng cocktail at a hawker centre and gawp at the locals in their flip flops? If or when that happens, hopefully, prices of our local deserts won’t be jacked up. According to an ST report, there was a suggestion to create more places like “Newton Circus’’. Hey, there might be a good idea – keep the tourists at these high-priced places with a Singapore flavour! No need for them to import inflation into the heartland!

Does anyone remember the old days when Singapore was merely positioned as a Garden City? That was a good one. Very few of our neighbours can replicate that, unless they want to tear down whole buildings and start re-landscaping. So beautiful, our Singapore. Air-con city in a tropical paradise….Can brand like that also leh!

Mr Yap said something refreshing published in ST yesterday: “The STB cannot do our work in a way that ignores what locals care about. It’s about striking a balance…and being respectful to how Singaporeans feel about what is going to happen to their city.’’

That’s something to think about. Because while we might be consulted – and want to be consulted – about our own living surroundings, we tend to leave the business of luring foreign tourists to agencies, forgetting that their actions would affect the place we live in – and even our way of life.

This article first appeared on
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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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