SINGAPORE: Seagulls flew overhead as we gazed at a sea view dotted with kelongs and a mangrove island - this was Singapore but not as I know it.
Speeding in a half-cabin cruiser, our small group of four were on a boat tour that took us around the northeastern coast of Singapore, cruising by Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong, with a stop at a kelong, or fish farm, partly converted to a floating restaurant.
Along the way Mr Robin Loh of Let’s Go Tours told us stories about how the coast and northern islands have changed, fed us titbits about fish farming and explained seafaring terms.
The long-time fishing enthusiast, who has been boating in Singapore waters for two decades, came up with this tour for Singapore residents who want to explore a side of Singapore they may not have seen before.
While his company’s bike tours cover cultural and historical sites as well as major attractions, he did not think these would appeal to most Singapore residents.
“It really takes a lot more to attract the locals. That's why we are putting on our thinking cap and coming up with experiences like this where local residents may not get to do on an everyday basis,” he said.
It’s an example of how tourism businesses have had to adapt to a plunge in visitor arrivals to Singapore, which has gone from the fifth-most visited city in the world to admitting just 880 people in May.
For outbound travel, the government's advisory not to travel out of the country is unlikely to change in the near future even as essential business travel resumes gradually and green lanes for travel are established.
"This will not apply to mass tourism travel. That I think will not happen any time soon," National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said on Jul 17.
On Wednesday (Jul 22), the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) launched a S$45 million campaign to encourage locals to take a “Singapoliday” or staycation, and support tourism and lifestyle businesses here.
According to a United Nations estimate, Singaporeans spent S$34 billion travelling overseas in 2018 alone, and STB hopes that some of Singaporeans' overseas spending can be channeled to domestic consumption despite the uncertain economic times.
But living on a small city-state with no hinterland, it can be hard to imagine where one can “get away from it all”. Besides booking a staycation at a hotel, are there corners of Singapore one can explore?
Island hopping and taking a day trip to Singapore’s outer islands is one way to escape the bustle of city life, said Ms Jane Lim, VP of global markets at Tripadvisor.
Mr Alvin Lee, who co-owns yacht charter Sip & Sail, used to hold parties at sea for large groups or corporate events on his catamaran Kingdom, but with safe distancing measures limiting groups to five people per boat, they now take families and small groups out for a day out in the sun and sea.
Bookings have also switched from being concentrated on weekends to being spread out across the week as people’s routines have changed, and the company has tweaked its rates and operations to adapt, he said.
"In our concrete jungle home, it's a rare opportunity to enjoy the sun, sea and beach away from the crowds and get away from it all - at least for a few hours,” said Mr Lee.
Mr Lars Lund Rasmussen of Epic Ocean yacht charter said that many families and groups book their boat to visit Lazarus Island for kayaking, water activities and time on the beach, but with small groups, it is also easy to tailor itineraries to more obscure islands or special occasions.
His wife Aemy Lim, who runs the operation with Mr Rasmussen, told CNA that they had a family who wanted to show their children Lazarus Island and St John’s Island, and tell them about the history of the islands; they’ve also taken guests to circle Pulau Jong - one of the few Singapore islands that remains untouched.
“We arrange a lot of surprises, when they bring (their friends or family) over, it’s a birthday or wedding anniversary ... they can have a barbecue or a romantic dinner out in nature,” she said.
STAYCATIONS WITH MORE
Staycations at a hotel are another way to book a quick getaway - and without the hassle of dealing with an unfamiliar environment, currency or transport system.
“The desire to have a staycation is usually higher for couples who live separately with their respective families, groups of friends who usually travel together, or families who don't have a swimming pool near their homes and wish to enjoy one at a hotel,” said Ms Zelia Leong, co-founder of trip planning company Anywhr.
“Some people also wish to replicate that travel experience, such as checking into a hotel or taking a plane. That is why in Taiwan, you can now board a plane to 'nowhere' and just sit in a stationary plane for a meal.”
With the recent opening for staycations, hotels here have been aggressively pushing out packages for locals that combine tours, discounts and spa or adventure experiences.
Mr Loh of Let’s Go Tours has adapted his award-winning bike tour for guests of Raffles Hotel. His history trails led by “Tan Ah Huat”, a fictional immigrant to Singapore at the turn of the 20th century, catered mostly to tourists before restrictions on arrivals were imposed in late March.
“This is a trail where we will cover the early days of 1900s all the way up to present, to show the contrast then and now, but in line with Raffles Hotel’s history,” he said.
With the restrictions in Phase 2, tours are also limited to no more than two hours for five people or fewer, and operators are turning to new niches.
Hoping to tap on nationalistic sentiments ahead of National Day, Monster Day Tours is organising SG55 special edition tours. The company is working with hotels, such as Lyf Funan, to offer these tours to staycation patrons, and it is also running a “behind-the-scenes” tour of Changi Airport and Jewel.
“We will tell you the insider stories about Changi and Jewel, which you may not know about even if you go to these areas often, and we’re also bundling the tour together with a set of gift cards,” he said.
“We're not really looking to make money, It's more like a long-term plan. We know if we want to recover we need our guides back on the ground.”
READ: Retrenchments in tourism industry are 'inevitable' without resumption of mass market travel: Chan Chun Sing
As part of the push to get locals to explore Singapore, merchant associations will be working with the Society of Tourist Guides to develop heartland tours slated for September, STB has said. There will also be guidebooks via a Jalan Jalan: Your Good Hoods Guide initiative, to promote local neighbourhoods’ food, shopping, entertainment and arts destinations.
WORKSHOPS ARE NOT WORK
Workshops are another great way to “escape” your routine at home, said Ms Leong.
“It allows you to bond with each other, try something new, and even bring a souvenir home,” she said. “We usually recommend workshops like terrarium making, concrete/cement workshops where you can make anything from lamps to coasters, and pottery - which are suitable for families, couples, and seniors.”
Ms Lynette Foo, director of cooking school Palate Sensations, said that they have seen more people interested in classes on advanced culinary techniques, and which require more time and effort to complete - such as an eight-session Chef In Training programme.
“Surprisingly, in times of crisis or distress, people tend to invest in themselves instead of spending their money on material items,” she told CNA.
“Technique-based classes are more important to them than aesthetic Instagrammable classes such as character macarons. They’d rather learn how to make sausages or how to improve their knife skills because they know this will stand them in good stead in the future.”
Ms Leong, whose company specialises in designing personalised itineraries, said that there are many hidden gems in Singapore, some of which she had recommended to overseas travellers who asked them to design their holidays in Singapore.
One suggestion: A tea making and appreciation workshop at family-run Yixing Xuan Teahouse along Tanjong Pagar, which Ms Leong said was “unique and under-rated”.
The teahouse, which has been in the area since 1989, would run workshops for corporate groups and tourists, but now holds virtual workshops, as well as more intimate sessions for smaller groups to savour and learn more about the art of tea making.
“You can also stroll along the shophouses along Duxton and spend an entire day in that neighbourhood,” Ms Leong suggested.
Those who live in tiny Singapore can take this time to discover lesser-known places, by learning from other people who have different experiences and interests.
“What many of our travellers want out of a holiday is to have new discoveries and unique experiences. You can also do that in your own country by searching for activities beyond your usual circle and social network, trying dining establishments you have never been before (and different cuisines), and most importantly to have an open mind,” she said.