Faced with competition, Singapore’s tourism industry needs to offer more unique experiences that appeal to the discerning tourist
New attractions lured Thai tourist Usa Pitaknarongporn to Singapore this week — her fifth trip here.
The 47-year-old, currently in Singapore for a week-long visit with her family, went to all of them: Marina Bay Sands, Universal Studios, Gardens by the Bay and S.E.A. Aquarium.
The last time she came here was five years ago — the year the Singapore Flyer opened.
“Whenever there are new attractions, we want to come,” said the housewife, who bought a package tour.
“If there are no new things to see, we may look elsewhere for something new.”
When asked if she would return, the mother of one said: “We have not decided. What else can we do here? Go shopping?”
Now imagine if she was given more options.
What about a cycling tour to see the sprawling flats in the heartland, a hawker centre food jaunt with a local foodie, or to a Nonya restaurant to see how ayam buah keluak (chicken with Indonesian nuts) is prepared?
Or if she could sign up for a Singlish lesson, or try her hand at making roti prata.
This is the type of unique content that the government is pushing the industry to develop in the face of slower growth.
Last week, it said that visitor arrivals would grow between 3 per cent and 4 per cent, and tourism receipts between 4 per cent and 6 per cent year-on-year over the next decade.
This is a turnaround from the record growth seen between 2002 and last year, when arrivals grew at a compounded annual rate of 6.6 per cent. The amount tourists spent here surged a corresponding 10 per cent over the same period.
But the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) said the current quantitative growth trend is “unsustainable”, and it urged the industry and individual businesses to create more unique content for visitors.
Singapore, after all, cannot keep building new attractions to keep its visitors keen. The industry seems poised for change that will force its players to either reinvent themselves or perish.
The solution may be better, customised products that justify higher prices and subsequently increased spending per tourist.
Victims of our success?
The past decade has been a banner decade for tourism here, a time when “flights, hotel rooms and tours practically sold themselves”, said Ngee Ann Polytechnic senior lecturer in tourism Michael Chiam.
Singapore started hosting the world’s only Formula One night race in 2008; the two integrated resorts opened in 2010; and Gardens by the Bay opened last year, the same year the Marina Bay Cruise Centre opened to receive large cruise liners.
The novelty factor propelled international arrivals and tourism receipts to an all-time high last year, with an estimated 14.4 million visitors spending S$23 billion (US$18.7 billion).
The industry may be resting on its laurels after that stellar performance. Robert Khoo, who was chief of the National Association of Travel Agents (Natas) for 13 years, thinks so.
The country’s infrastructure is in place but a majority of travel businesses lag behind.
Most of Natas’ 350 agency members, said Khoo, develop standard packages and distribute them en masse to overseas partner agencies at marked-up rates.
“They sell the attractions individually. There is no customisation. It’s time to sell Singapore as an experience,” he said, adding that the industry competes on price, not product quality.
Singapore can do worse than look at what regional cities are doing.
If others can, so can we
Hong Kong’s travel businesses think outside the box.
They suss out local artists to see if they are keen to conduct artist-led tours, hire fashion gurus to give style tips on shopping trips, and even design secret tours — where visitors pay for surprise dinners, tickets to undisclosed movies and stays at unknown hotels.
Our industry needs to curate the island’s best experiences as opposed to simply stringing attractions together before selling them. How can it be that Singapore is known as a food paradise yet tours featuring local cooking classes are rare?
Hong Kong’s roll-up-your-sleeves attitude could be partly why consultancy Business Monitor International expects Hong Kong visitor arrivals to grow 8 per cent yearly till 2017. Tourism receipts are expected to increase 10 per cent year-on-year until then. Last year, Hong Kong received 48,615,113 tourists, 16 per cent more than in 2011.
Then you have Taiwan.
The growth of its nascent tourism industry — 7.3 million arrivals last year — is startling. Arrivals and spending have jumped more than 20 per cent year-on-year in recent years — topping Singapore and Hong Kong.
The takeaway? The focus on local tourism and industry support.
Professor Claire Lu, tourism director at Taiwan’s Chinese Culture University, said that the government has county offices scattered islandwide. Each is given a budget to develop potential tourist attractions or programmes in its jurisdiction.
The government designs tours around these offerings and sells them to visitors. The industry then naturally comes up with its own packages.
Taiwan’s famous activities — dining, cycling and railroad trips — were promoted mainly through specialist agencies that focus on niche products, for instance, gourmet food tours, said Prof Lu.
This is an idea that Singapore can adopt. Why not leverage on clan associations and neighbourhood committees to unearth unique gems in their precincts? Or tap on groups like the Singapore Heritage Society?
The STB could then fund community projects to refurbish these attractions, or extend funding to operators who want to conduct local tours.
But in Singapore’s quest to lure the big spenders, the local travel industry must also be mindful not to price-out visitors from the major source markets — Indonesia, China, India and Malaysia. The high-speed rail linking Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, slated to be built by 2020, is also expected to bring in streams of mass-market visitors.
Over-specialisation in Monaco, which targets big spenders from Europe, alienated tourists with smaller budgets, who went on to seek accommodation facilities outside the tiny city state on the French Riviera.
So what do we sell?
What the industry needs to do is clear. But it could use more direction on how to package and sell local content, said Professor Bernd Schmitt, director of the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight.
The current STB campaign “Your Singapore” and new marketing collateral centred on the new slogan “Singapore Shiok” to showcase local delights do not give much direction, he said.
The “Your Singapore” campaign may also be taking the visitor-centric approach just one step too far, said Schmitt.
“STB should take a step back, ask what we are really proud of, what can we sell, what are our strengths? Maybe some soul searching instead of throwing it to visitors to decide,” he said. “By trying to be something to everyone, you may end up being nothing to anyone.”
He suggested that the STB develop a campaign around a few unique selling propositions that the industry can centre its products on.
“I would go with shopping, food, culture and nature,” he said, adding that the industry could come up with multi-level experiences.
Shopping trips could bring tourists to Orchard Road malls for style tips, to Chinatown for cheongsam-hunting and to Mustafa Shopping Centre for a bargain.
Nature tours could bring tourists from Gardens by the Bay and Sungei Buloh to vertical farms in Lim Chu Kang.
“Singapore is a multi-level, distinct experience. Travel agents, the industry, need to learn how to tell and sell that story,” said Prof Schmitt.
The path forward
As emerging Asian markets grow richer, legions of new tourists will be clamouring to travel.
By 2020, two out of every five travellers are expected to be Asian and will account for nearly half of global tourism expenditure, according to a Boston Consulting Group report.
With Asia accounting for over 75 per cent of visitor arrivals here, this bodes well for Singapore.
Other countries want a slice of the pie. New integrated resorts will soon spring up in Macau and South Korea; Bangkok plans to hold a Formula One night race by 2015; and Universal Studios is scheduled to open in South Korea and Shanghai.
With other offerings to turn to, visitors will be spoilt for choice. Singapore needs to give them a reason to keep coming back.
This window of opportunity may not be open for long. Seize it. ___