5 thoughts for the Singapore Tourism Board

Tonight I’ve been asked to participate in a focus group that will be discussing Singapore’s tourist attractions.  I’m not entirely sure if that is the topic as they don’t tell you what the focus group is about, but in the “qualifying” statements they listed:

  • I am a foreigner who has lived in S’pore for at least 2 years
  • I have hosted visitors from abroad
  • There are aspects of Singapore’s culture that intrigue me
  • I am NOT in the marketing / advertising and travel / tourism / hospitality industry
  • I have been to most of these cities: Bangkok, KL, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai

So in preparation for this focus group, I’ve thought about what I like – as a foreigner – when it comes to tourist sites in Singapore and some areas in which I think the Singapore Tourism Board should think more about.

1) Promote Little India
I know most locals seem to hate the place.  Mention Little India’s appeal and their first response is, “Have you seen it on a Sunday??”  Yes, I have.  It’s like one massive street party with a smattering of Bengali, Sri Lankan, South Indian, and Nepalese culture.  What’s that?  A Buddhist temple near a Hindu temple?  Awesome.  Bright colors scream out from the stalls, the smells of spices and fragrances are everywhere, and when I walk along Dunlop Street or Desker Road I can marvel at a part of Singapore that is still a bit raw.  When I have visitors, a nice walking tour is:

  • Start on Waterloo Street & Middle Road – walk down Waterloo past the Hari Krishna temple and the Buddhist temple.
  • Head into Little India.  Cut through Rochor Centre before Little India and it’s a nice contrast from a Chinese enclave to the Indian one.
  • Drop by Post Museum – see an exhibit, drink some organic wine (actually don’t – that stuff is nasty – but their other drinks are good)
  • End up at Mustafa.  Eat.

2) Sell on Unique
Build or develop interest in things that make Singapore unique.  Example – Attraction-wise: Night Safari.  That is unique.  (or at least it was – and it’s still the best night-time zoo experience).  Concept-wise: Singapore is a mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and British culture.  Leverage it.  Small country, big city… it might not be unique for shopping, the beach or nightlife, but show me how I can get the best of all 3 in a very short time.  S’pore is easy to get around, I won’t get stuck in (much) traffic, so I can overwhelm myself with activities.

Wait, I just realized that Singapore’s tagline is Uniquely Singapore.  Then we go and do things like build the Singapore Flyer.  What was the point of it?  Taiwan, UK, China, elsewhere… all have “observation wheels.”  I wonder if there has been a single tourist that said,”I want to visit Singapore to ride the Flyer.”  It’s not a draw.

Fun things to do:

  • Get some kaya toast, runny eggs, and kopi for breakfast
  • Head to Sentosa – lay on the beach.  Or if you’re so inclined, check out a museum / attraction
  • After enough sun, relax at Cafe del Mar or come back for a drink at Raffles Hotel (and a stroll around City Hall).  Take a nap.
  • Go to the Night Safari.  Eat dinner there (even though they price gouge you – seriously 5 dollars for lime juice??)
  • Still have energy?  Go to Clarke Quay.

3) Nightlife as a tourist attraction
I’m ambivalent about this.  I think the redevelopment of Clarke Quay was a positive and the combination of nightlife spots such as Clarke Quay, Dempsey Hill, Robertson Quay, etc. make Singapore a top place for night time fun.  I can see that people come to Singapore and know they will have fun.

However I disagree with ideas such as the Crazy Horse debacle (I wrote a column once on how quickly that would fail) or Supper Club (what I consider the Singapore Flyer of nightlife).  Generally, dinner is dinner and a show is a show.  Dinner + show w/ trapeze artists or topless girls = gimmick.  And gimmicks don’t last.

For a big night out:

  • Start at Robertson Quay or Dempsey.  Both have places to “ease” into the night with drinks and dinner.  Loof would be another good choice.
  • Move over to Clarke Quay for the variety and larger rowdier crowd.  Drink profusely.  On a sidenote don’t go to Le Noir because their customer service is atrocious.  (I can never resist voicing my disdain for Le Noir and Supper Club).  I suppose if you’re more Chinese-nightlife oriented you could head to St. James Powerstation instead of Clarke Quay.
  • Zouk is always good late night.
  • And the best part – a greasy supper at Spize.  Get a chicken murtabak and you just might have enough left over for breakfast the next day.

For a sleazy night out:

  • Substitute the Zouk portion above with any KTV with hostesses – if you have some money to burn, go to Tiananmen.  As a westerner this will be guaranteed humorous as you will have no idea what is going on.

For a super-sleazy night out:

  • Add in a stop to Orchard Towers.  “Four Floors of Whores”  And remember to check if that’s really a girl who is grabbing your merry-maker.

But remember, always eat supper and drink some water!

4) Singapore as a shopping destination

I understand why STB wants to promote Singapore as a shopping destination.  It makes money, it’s good for the economy… get the rich tai-tais from Indonesia to come here and spend their money.  My issue with it as a focal point is that promoting Singapore as a shopping destination does not increase the country’s cultural reputation.  Some other place puts on a sale or builds a bigger mall and boom – there goes Singapore’s tourism campaign.

I don’t know why there is such promotion of Orchard Road as the place to see.  A string of shopping malls.  How exciting.  You know what other cities promote themselves by using shopping malls as attractions?  Manila and Dubai.  These are not cities that Singapore should mimic when it comes to tourist satisfaction.

At the focus group tonight (I started writing this before the focus group), they played a video that was supposed to highlight Singapore attractions.  You know what one of the scenes was?  The front of the Bvlgari store.  Videos promoting a country’s tourist industry should not include nonsense like the Bvlgari logo.  Last I checked the brand did not originate in Singapore and I can buy their stuff anywhere in the world.  I did have a chuckle that it was right after the testimonial by Koreans about how they enjoyed Singapore when they showed the logo.

But fine, if shopping beckons:

  • Orchard Road for the standard shopping mall experience.  At least eat some ice cream bread sandwiches on the street
  • See if there’s anything quirky you can find at Bugis Village
  • Stroll down Haji Lane and feel uncool cause everyone else there is young and hip.  Have a coffee at Pluck.
  • End up at Sim Lim Square and buy electronics. :)

5) Chase the pink dollar

That’s right – convince the gay community to come vacation in Singapore.  Apparently from 2001 – 2005 Singapore flirted with the gay community… allowing large-scale parties such as Nation to be held – one party drawing 8,000 people, 40% of which were foreigners.  However in 2005 the government rejected the application for Nation ‘05.  The party then moved to Phuket and whimpered out.

Bring the reputation of acceptance and the pink money back.  If the happiest place on earth allows it, Singapore should too.

(Written on the HP Mini 1000 while eating at Don Pie Club @ China Square. Now my new keyboard has chicken pie grease on it.  I guess this is like a road test).

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15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Char on January 13, 2009 at 10:44 am

    How about our clean and quiet neighbourhood of carefully-planned HDB flats? Carpark rooftop gardens, kopitiams, Ah Peks, Ah Sohs, schoolkids..

    Yeah, Night Safari food is really way too expensive. If i did not remember wrongly, $4 for a cup of kopitiam stall coffee? Crazy!

    Reply

  2. Posted by lips on January 16, 2009 at 8:47 am

    Interesting article…though:

    I can’t believe you would complain about the prices at Night Safari and recommend a drink at the Raffles. Now that place is a complete rip-off

    But very interesting post, and some good ideas. Let’s hope someone from STB is reading

    Reply

  3. Posted by talk19 on January 16, 2009 at 10:17 am

    @lips True Raffles Hotel drinks (> 18 SGD for a Singapore Sling?) are expensive. I guess it comes down to expectations of the place. Raffles is supposed to be opulent and grand, so I am not surprised that they charge a high price. The “tourist attraction” or “experience” that people are going there for is the Singapore Sling / Long Bar.

    The Night Safari seems like a family-friendly place where the attraction is (of course) the animals. The food is supplementary.

    My question would be whether the lime juice at Raffles Hotel is cheaper than the lime juice at the Night Safari!

    Reply

  4. Posted by geroithe on January 16, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    i say, bring them to one of the hawker centres other than newton and have a HUGE SINGAPOREAN FEAST. :)

    Reply

  5. i find yr points valid. in fact, after visiting shanghai, i realised that what they do is like what you mentioned – promote local as much first, then the global stuff.

    they are so proud to promote their colonialisation buildings and areas. we should too.

    btw for stb to do this, this is a good first step :)

    Reply

  6. I like your post. I was with the Tourism Board in the mid 90’s and frankly many of the staff there are clueless about tourism, a few are totally clueless about Singapore, it’s heritage & the local cultures since they spent many years studying overseas. Most of them embrace anything western and rejcet anything asian.

    Many just wanna GET OUT of Singapore as soon as they can. I know some who took the job with STB just hoping to be posted overseas.

    Any one passionate about Singapore? Hmmmm….none, wait…maybe except for MM Lee’s sister-in-law.

    Reply

  7. Posted by anonymous on January 21, 2009 at 12:00 am

    I’m working at STB now.

    Replying to Kevin’s post, STB has evolved over the years, so attitudes and strategic objectives have changed as well. There have been quite a few high profile projects in the recent years — IRs and F1 to name a couple.

    To reply to this blog entry, STB is structured such that different divisions oversee different areas. There is a Sightseeing & Attractions division that looks into things like the Flyer, Night Safari, Duck Tours, etc. Another division, Tourism Shopping & Dining, looks into courting different retail brands and restaurants and getting them to set up shop in Singapore.

    So actually most of these suggestions are covered in one way or another through promotional brochures (e.g. Little India Walking Guide, Intro to Peranakan Culture) and marketing collateral. There is also grant funding allocated to many of these attractions. For instance, the land on which Bugis Village sits on is “owned” by STB – funding is allocated to create this little space that is quite different from the mega mall opposite. There are other commercial tie-ups here and there too, so in fact STB is involved in quite a lot of things you’ve suggested, except that at times it’s not visible possibly because it is not very high-profile.

    In terms of events, there is also this Events & Entertainment division that looks into providing grant funding. There is some involvement for bigger events like ZoukOut, Volvo Ocean Race – sometimes it’s in our overseas marketing efforts in print/tv ads. Usually support is pegged against KPIs (i.e. attendance figures).

    There is also this impression that most of our marketing is based on shopping. But the lesser-known fact is that our number 1 country for tourist arrivals is Indonesia… And they love to shop.

    Sometimes the reason we see things differently is because a certain amount of data supports these decisions. For instance, there wasn’t much take-up for the heartland tours, so it isn’t marketed as heavily. Or the fact that quite a few foreigners tend to have this insatiable desire to taste the original Singapore Sling means that the Raffles Hotel is mentioned more frequently.

    On a personal note, the one problem with Singapore ‘history’ is that we don’t have a whole lot of it. Most of our history is recorded after 1819. We’re also pretty much a city-state, so most of our attractions tend to be man-made since we don’t have the scenery of New Zealand or the thousands of years of cultural heritage of China. And because we’re not a big country, we still get mixed up with China.

    Still, we try to weave all the elements Singapore has together. For example, the F1 circuit winds through the colonial district of City Hall, the newer developments like the Esplanade and Singapore Flyer, and part of the Gardens by the Bay development.

    Reply

  8. Posted by Anna on January 27, 2009 at 11:58 am

    I couldn’t agree more about promoting local. I know Orchard Road is popular for shopping but meh, can see all that in any glossy magazine or in the stores in my home country. I come to Singapore for Singapore!

    Would be great if there was marketing for the pink dollar, but also have to do something about s 377a. Who wants to go somewhere they’re not welcome?

    Reply

  9. Posted by hnickels on January 27, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    I love that (original) post! Just spent two weeks in Singapore – last time I´ve been here is 15 years ago on a stoppover to AUS. from my point of view there is the problem – I do not know the figures/statistics on origin of visitors, duration of stay.., but I got the feeling most ppl at least from europe stay in SIN only 2-3 days cause they get it quite cheap with their tickets (if they do not prefer to go to HK instead).
    so what they do know is of course the night-safary (even I know lots of ppl they are disappointed of it), Raffles, the area around Esplanade + cq, Orchard and Chinatown. So what is special abt that and would get me to SIN ???

    I can tell U I am really surprised what has changed the last 15 years and I love it! I do not understand why there is so few promotion abt the other things SIN has to offer!
    Little India is mentioned in the original post and also the promoted walk in one of the answers – but checking for example http://www.couchsurfing.com/group_read.html?gid=415&post=2250913
    U know how ppl feel concern abt. the area!
    what abt. Arab Street, Pulau Ubin, Southern Ridges…and all the other walks possible in SIN? yes, there are infos on the web but are they promoted in a way that I would consider to spent more than two days in SIN? what abt all the new architecture – besides the old shophouses architecture U still find a lot of – its a point of selling but is it used? is the marketing for the 2010 biennale already going on – I have not seem much of it. but the point I really missing – maybe its still to early – the park connector system! I skated some of them – the surface is perfect – but who knows that f.e. it is possible to go around all of SIN by bikes on prepared tracks?…
    SIN consists of people belonging to different races – even if the SIN. government tries to get ONE nation build – which I think is understandable and I totally agree in – there are still different cultures and that makes it so interesting to go to SIN. U visit SIN, U have the possibility to get in a very limited amount of time in touch with different cultures which still have their own habits – I think this could be on of the most important facts to promote SIN!
    as in one of the previous post said, promote the local first, after U can tell abt things U find everywhere on the globe.

    Reply

  10. Posted by talk19 on February 6, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    @anonymous Thanks for your comments and explaining how STB works. I figure that the folks from Indonesia that come here shopping probably make up the highest percentage of tourists. I guess my view is that while it’s fine to promote shopping and try to attract the overseas money, it doesn’t enhance Singapore’s “cultural” reputation, and if the shopping is the most promoted, it is the image that gets put into people’s minds.

    I think it’s interesting how the government is making a huge push for the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, Exhibitions) crowd. This should help Singapore’s overseas appeal as well – establishing its reputation as a place where “things get done” and the business of the world can come together. There is value in a tourist thinking, “Singapore is an efficient place and ultramodern. I want to see how it operates.” Slightly different than, “I hear Singapore has good shopping.”

    You do bring up a good point about how there are less natural / geographic sites available in Singapore.

    @hnickels I agree that one of Singapore’s strengths is the diversity of the cultures here and how you can get a taste of them all while you visit. I also think it’d be interesting, like you mention, if there were an architectural tour of Singapore that point out significant / historical buildings.

    Reply

  11. Posted by Sukeri on February 12, 2009 at 1:02 am

    Great post! Found another site which I must admit has come in handy while working remote: TravelMonks

    They have a pretty good dynamic map of a lot of places and things, like this one on nightlife or this one on wireless internet places.

    Reply

  12. Posted by Lickminaili on April 24, 2009 at 8:28 am

    I’m the only one in this world. Can please someone join me in this life? Or maybe death…

    Reply

  13. Greetings im a newb here most likely i will be able to contribute to this board.

    i work as electrician in sheffield i do take pleasure in the work i do.
    Thanks.

    Reply

  14. – Gratis.

    Reply

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