SINGAPORE: Street art is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of the modern metropolis that is Singapore, but the canvas is expanding with more public space allocated to street art in recent months.
It offers visitors an alternative way of exploring a country, through art.
"It gives you an idea of the place and what the locals or the people who live in the area think about the place,” said Ms Jaclynn Seah, founder of The Occasional Traveller. “It tells a different story about the place itself than what you get in a travel brochure."
These sights are getting increasingly popular, particularly among millennials - a term referring to those born between 1981 and 1995.
Based on a report done by McKinsey, commissioned by Singapore Tourism Board (STB), there are about one billion millennials in Asia, making up about one-quarter of the region's total population.
But already, they account for 35 per cent of the total travel expenditure in the region, spending some S$280 billion a year on international travel. This is even before they have reached the peak of their earning years.
Observers say this presents significant opportunities for the travel industry, with millennial spending expected to hit some S$460 billion by 2020.
For industry watchers, the term 'millennial traveller' refers to more than just a demographic group. They see it as an emerging mindset in a region of rising affluence.
"As Asia's middle class starts to evolve they climb up the wealth and income spectrum, it's only natural that they become more discerning in terms of taste and palette. And that certainly extends into travel," said Mr Leong Wai Ho, chief economist at Barclays.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
With visitors to Singapore becoming more well-travelled, a growing number now prefer to customise their own itineraries. They are also willing to journey off the beaten path in search of what makes a city tick.
"People come visit a place for different reasons. Some of them come to see the touristy attractions and they enjoy that,” said Ms Seah. “I like to see what makes the country tick, what makes the country so unique in itself. Not everybody just wants to see the country’s best parts.
“People want to know what is the heart of the country and I think the only way to do that is to go off the beaten track, so to speak, talk to the locals, or just find other things aside from the attractions."
Travel website Tripadvisor - a key source of information for millennial digital natives - recently released Singapore's top ten landmarks, as voted by travellers.
While the iconic Marina Bay Sands Skypark and Singapore Flyer came up tops, lesser known places such as the NUS Baba House, Bukit Brown Cemetery, and Kranji War Memorial also made it to the list.
Singapore Tourism Board says it is looking to attract more visitors that fit this profile.
"More of the discerning travellers are looking for off-the-beaten-track, more immersive experiences that they do not get to experience normally in their own country or other in destinations,” said STB assistant chief executive Yap Chin Siang,
“Many of the characteristics that the millennial travellers exhibit, the need for personalised in-depth experiences, they do fit into Singapore's target audience profile."
Meanwhile, older attractions are adapting to the changing visitor profile. Just a month ago, the Singapore Zoo welcomed four koalas to the family.
The furry friends are already a hit among both locals and tourists. Since the exhibit was open to visitors on May 20, some 60,000 have come just to the see the koalas, and another half a million more are expected till the end of the year.
About 1.7 million visitors came to the Singapore Zoo in 2014. Two out of every five were tourists - almost double the number about a decade ago when the ratio was one tourist to four locals.
The growth is on the back of strong marketing efforts as well as more activities that educate and entertain the visitors such as animal feeding, behind-the-scenes, and personalised guided tours.
"When they come in the past, the zoo was probably very passive. Visitors just walk around and they look at the animals and their antics and think 'Oh it's fun and it's cute' and they're quite happy,” said Ms Isabel Cheng, chief marketing officer at Wildlife Reserves Singapore.
“In order to stay relevant, we really need to come up with things that can engage them. It's no longer about passive viewing. We have interactive exhibits, we have activities and we have experiences that they can enjoy and leave and still feel like 'Wow, I had a good time!'"
STAYING LONGER, SPENDING MORE
Singapore Tourism Board says increasingly sophisticated travellers tend to stay longer and spend more.
On average, visitors to Singapore stayed for 3.7 days in 2014, up from 3.5 days the year before. Meanwhile, tourism receipts in 2014 increased slightly to S$23.6 billion from S$23.5 billion the year before, despite a drop in visitor arrivals.
However, in 2014, total visitor arrivals saw a drop of three per cent on-year, amid political uncertainty and aviation accidents in the region. This decline has spilt over into 2015 - with the numbers dropping by 5.4 per cent in the first four months of the year.
Despite current headwinds, STB says it expects arrivals to grow by up to four per cent annually over the next few years, and spending to grow even faster by up to six per cent. To help drive the numbers, STB says it's working with the industry to enhance the local tourism landscape.
"Unlike other destinations that may boast of more natural attributes and can continue to build more and more, Singapore has no such luxury,” said Mr Yap. “We have to focus on building deep. This means having to continue developing new tourism products, refreshing existing ones and injecting complementary tourism experiences.
“Going forward, STB intends to be even more aggressive and work with our industry to develop more compelling tourism experiences by providing them with greater funding support."
MEETING THE CHANGE
Attractions aside, hotels too are tailoring their services to meet the changing preferences of travellers.
At Hotel Jen, for travellers who crave authentic local experiences, it has Jen's Heart Map where hotel staff can recommend places for guests to visit for the quintessential Singapore experience they cannot afford to miss.
"It's a huge map of Singapore where every month we run a promotion where people share their favourite places - where they get the best fish noodles, where they have their char kway teow,” said Hotel Jen general manager Clifford Weiner.
“We really look for places where you and I living here, have your local experiences, and that's what we're trying to share through the staff with the customer."
With evolving traveller preferences, economists say this offers the overall tourism landscape an opportunity to reinvent itself.
“It offers the industry a chance to see if we can level up our existing offerings to perhaps offer a more niche type of bundling in the travel services we offer,” said Mr Leong. “It's not about offering one niche or a couple of niches, but broadening the tourism appeal that is important.
"It's how we leverage ourselves, organise ourselves better to provide that offering for specific needs and also general needs and how we can cater to those at the same time. This sophistication and variety will help in getting people to stay more and spend longer.”
From a modern metropolis to nostalgic heritage quarters and pockets of greenery, industry observers say Singapore has much to offer all in one compact location. The island city-state will need to leverage on bundling these contrasting experiences to create an overall value proposition that is competitive, sustainable and truly unique to Singapore.