Singapore’s most iconic landmarks were created to attract tourists. The Marina Bay Sands integrated resort and Gardens by the Bay were built with the goal of drawing tourists to the area. Even the Merlion itself was conceptualised and created by the Singapore Tourism Board.
Yet there continues to be a lot of angst over whether enough tourists are coming to Singapore—and whether they’re spending enough money.
A recent report revealed that international tourists spent the most money in Singapore compared to other destinations in the Asia Pacific, including Bangkok and Tokyo, and was the second-most visited destination after Bangkok. In fact, in 2017, tourist arrivals and spending in Singapore hit historic highs.
But it isn’t exactly time to break out the champagne just yet. Singapore malls on Orchard are now haunted by the spectre of empty units thanks in part to falling tourist spending, and the local tourism industry is very vulnerable to the caprices of the economy.
What’s the real reason tourists are spending money here?
One reason tourists seem to be spending so much in Singapore compared to elsewhere is simply because prices here are so high, and have been rising over the years. In addition, many of the main tourist attractions like Universal Studios and the Night Safari have high ticket prices.
What’s more, hotels are outrageously expensive here. Singapore is quite underdeveloped in terms of budget and mid-range accommodation, and restaurant prices have been rising steadily over the years—two things which most tourists have no choice but to spend on.
That could be why the most recent rise in tourist spending was mainly caused by spending on shopping, accommodation and F&B. Tourists actually spent less money on sightseeing, entertainment and casino gaming.
If you look at the money raked in by tourism as a percentage of the overall GDP, we haven’t really progressed since 2010, when tourism was given a boost due to the opening of the integrated resorts at Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World.
So what can be done to encourage those tourist dollars to start rolling in?
Encouraging tourists to stay longer
The Singapore Tourism Board now intends to focus on attracting tourists from Tier 2 cities in markets like China and Indonesia.
But they would also do well to market Singapore as a destination that’s worth more than two days of people’s time.
Singapore tends to get many visitors who are en route to another destination and are just stopping over for a day or two before moving on to a more exciting destination.
In addition, tourists in the region tend to come just for the weekend.
Falling spending on sightseeing and entertainment suggest that tourists perceive Singapore as a place for just shopping and eating.
With a dwindling interest in Singapore’s tourist and cultural sights, it’s no wonder tourists do not allocate many days to exploring the city.
So far, most of the efforts to lure tourists have focused on big, shiny attractions like MBS, RWS and USS. These might encourage tourists to come here for a dirty weekend, but to get people to stay longer, you’ve got to convince them that Singapore is an interesting place with more depth than a shopping mall.
Focusing on beefing up the tourist and cultural infrastructure
Relying only on high spending tourists to spend money at restaurants and in shopping malls makes the tourism industry very vulnerable to economic downturns. For instance, in 2016, tourism declined as companies cut back on business travel.
An enduring travel destination is one that is well-rounded enough to offer cultural, historical and recreational sights which remain relevant to a large proportion of travellers—not just rich businessmen here for work or Chinese and Indonesian tourists on a shopping binge.
If Singapore wants to become a destination that people all over the world consider worth visiting—like Bangkok or Tokyo—rather than a two-day pit-stop, some real thought has to be put into the preservation of heritage, inclusive public spaces and allowing local culture and movements to take root from the ground up.
That’s a lot harder and bears fruit less immediately than building another casino. But in the end it’s something that will benefit not just the tourism industry but local people, too.
Where do you take friends when they visit Singapore from overseas? Tell us in the comments!