SINGAPORE: In 2018, 19.1 million tourists came to Singapore and spent S$27.7 billion here.
The same year, Singaporeans went on 24.9 million international trips and spent S$34 billion overseas.
So, when COVID-19 kept overseas visitors out and trapped us all here, depriving us of our Japan sakura fixes, Zermatt ski trips, Chatuchak shopping binges and Maldives beach vibes, Singaporeans could have been counted on to prop up our tourism industry.
Well, we did try.
Post-lockdown, we visited the Zoo for the animals, and Botanic Gardens and Gardens by the Bay for the plant life. We got swabbed for cruises to nowhere, and hung out at Marina Bay and the civic district museums quite a lot.
Many of us flocked to Sentosa and East Coast beaches, so much so that pre-booking and yellow rope squares were implemented to ensure safe distancing.
And we took staycations, went on many hikes and bike rides.
But as of Mar 1, three-quarters of our S$320 million SingapoRediscover vouchers remain unused. Was it just too troublesome to collect the vouchers personally, or redeem them online?
Or, could it be possible that Singaporeans find Singapore too boring?
WHAT’S ATTRACTIVE ABOUT SINGAPORE ATTRACTIONS?
STB has been pro-active in expanding our attraction offerings, but I am not sure it hits the mark.
Let’s take the Museum of Ice Cream Singapore (an offshoot of the New York City original, opening here in August), which is essentially a selfie museum. I can see how it would draw young families and social media-obsessed millennials and Gen Zs.
Even though the Singapore branch of the Ice Cream Museum offers local flavours such as Milo, Bandung and Boba, it's still essentially a selfie museum and doesn't do much to promote Singapore's heritage.
Whose brilliant idea was it to cut and paste a museum from somewhere else in the world and pass it off as the newest, most exciting attraction?
It just seems hip and gimmicky. Can it endure the attention spans of Instagrammers and TikTok-ers which are like, eight seconds?
SkyHelix Sentosa, the open-air rotating gondola that will ascend 35m above the ground and offer views of Singapore’s southern coast, slated to open 2022, sounds like it has been done before.
Those who remember Sentosa’s Tiger Sky Tower (2008-2018, RIP) and the roller-coaster (mis)fortunes of The Singapore Flyer will be curious to see how SkyHelix fares.
Especially when there are already so many places in Sentosa that offer great views: Think Fort Siloso SkyWalk, all those cable cars, various hotels’ balconies and rooftop bars.
I often wondered why the giant Merlion That Shoots Lasers From Its Eyeballs observation tower was demolished. To me, that looked more uniquely Singaporean than SkyHelix, which resembles a rooftop water tank.
And honestly, an open-air gondola in Singapore where insanely hot days are punctuated with thunderstorms spells trouble.
OLD FAVOURITES NEED A NEW LIFE
The casualties in our national struggle to find interesting things for people to do are plenty. During my recent Sentosa staycation, I came across the overgrown, abandoned ruins of a mini-golf course, and noted that Kidzania, a career-themed attraction that lets kids “try out” more than 100 jobs, had shut down.
During a recent visit to the Singapore Science Centre, which I hadn’t been to since I was a child, I found myself drawn to the newish exhibits of optical illusions, located right after the entrance.
But the displays were too small and crammed together, leaving visitors little time and space to really appreciate the illusions, and read up on the explanations, without feeling rushed to move on.
The infinity windows and digital fun-house “mirrors” were definitely attempts to attract social-media posts and hashtags, as with the mirror maze. I would have given the laser maze a go, if not for the long waiting time.
But I couldn’t help but feel that while these exhibits were amusing and interactive, they didn’t teach me much about science.
Other exhibits further in, such as the one on fire and combustion, the urban planning, the Tesla coil and Jacob’s Ladder, looked dated, as if stuck in a 70s time warp - not quite the look modern, technologically advanced Smart Nation Singapore might be going for.
We could take a leaf from Europe’s largest science museum, City of Science and Industry in Paris, where scale, theatricality, technology, artistry, storytelling and engaging interactive hands-on elements come together to deliver visitors a fun, impactful and educational experience.
There’s an entire section for children but they are divided into different “cities” – one for kids two to seven years old and one for older children.
Well-travelled Singapore residents have been spoiled all these years. Catering to the local market only when borders shut has meant that we are just now looking at how our attractions meet the mark.
WHERE A RIVER RUNS THROUGH
Having strong offerings might not require us to import some new flashy museum. The historical riverside quay, with its beautiful heritage-status godowns and even a former cannery, could do with fewer bars, restaurants and kitschy souvenir stalls or thrill rides.
If we made an effort, locals and tourists alike can enjoy a well-curated, entertaining Singapore River Museum covering everything from the river’s importance in transporting goods, what life was like for a coolie versus his colonial bosses, the big Singapore River clean-up, how people kept track of cargo before the advent of modern warehousing logistics, and so many other interesting factoids.
I imagine a boat ride along the river, where the outbound journey has me wearing VR goggles and watching lively depictions of the life, people and early developments along the waterway in the 1800s and 1900s.
On the return journey, we’d remove the VR goggles, and sip local craft beers or cocktails made using locally-distilled spirits, while marveling at how far Singapore has come.
Which was why I am not sure about Clarke Quay’s upcoming Slingshot, where riders will be catapulted almost 70m in the air at speeds of up to 160km per hour. I can’t quite see what value it adds to Clarke Quay, given that it replaces the G-Max Reverse Bungee, which stopped operating about two years ago.
Do Clarke Quay revellers need additional help upchucking their beers?
THERE’S MUCH TO LOVE ABOUT THE CITY
That is not to say nothing is worth our time. There’s a reason the entire Marina Bay area appears on so many Instagram posts – it’s stunning any time of the day.
Centrally located crowd favourites, such as the Singapore Art Museum, Asian Civilisations Museum and National Museum, are very lovely, probably because their location and accessibility justifies them getting more budget.
The hardware is all definitely there, but sometimes no amount of technology can make a bone-dry narrative compelling. Perhaps curators and historians could work more with content creators, professional writers, VR technologists and so on, to jazz stuff up?
With so many graduates spilling out from the School of The Arts and Singapore University of Technology and Design, lack of talent surely cannot be the issue.
To get tourists and locals to spend more and eventually to that big goal of tourists staying more than the average 3.7 days when travel resumes, we need to get people to see beyond usual fan favourites Marina Bay, Orchard Road, Botanic Gardens, Sentosa and the Singapore Zoo.
When travel restrictions look par for the course for the next few years, local attractions and retailers must win over locals or risk going belly up.
Perhaps STB could come up with a selection of curated full- or half-day experiences further afield, organised by geographic zones, neighbourhoods and themes, with looping bus services for each?
There are signs we are starting to do that which shows innovative and impactful policy is welcome. STB announced on Friday (Apr 30) that the Heartland Enterprise Centre Singapore (HECS) has partnered with City Tours to launch a series of heartland tours with themes like disappearing trades, photo spots, interesting food and shopping hunts.
I would sign up for a “Farms to Tables” day trip, covering old school and ultra-modern hydroponic farms, a dairy and maybe a kelong, with lunch and dinner at eateries using local produce. Or a “Spice and Booze” one covering local breweries and distilleries which showcase some of our budding talents in this area.
Singapore has the money, the technology and the talent to really showcase our little city. But we need to aim for attractions that trumpet Singapore’s multi-faceted history and its outsized aspirations, in a manner that’s eye-popping, jaw-dropping, mind-blowing, and rib-tickling.
We have to be bold and go big, or visitors (whether local or tourists) will just stay home.
Worse, they might simply go elsewhere when the gates finally open.
Tracy Lee is a freelance writer who writes about food, travel, fashion and beauty.