SINGAPORE - These days, the desolate streets and shuttered businesses in popular tourist areas in Singapore like Little India and Chinatown are telling. Top tourist attractions like Sentosa, Universal Studios and the Singapore Zoological Gardens are seeing a fraction of the visitors they used to have.
Even Singapore's tourism icon, the majestic Merlion at the mouth of the Singapore River, sits quietly. Still spouting water from its mouth but longing for the days when throngs of tourists take selfies with it and fight over the best spots to take the perfect photo in its presence.
Orchard Road although not as bustling as its pre-COVID days still has decent pedestrian traffic consisting of residents who are enjoying a bit of freedom after the 8-week "circuit breaker" lockdown. The Orchard Road Business Association just announced that the famous Orchard Road Christmas light-up will still go ahead this year albeit in a pared-down form.
Unlike larger countries, Singapore, a tiny 720 square kilometres island state, has no domestic tourists. Singapore Airlines, one of the most admired carriers in the world, but without a domestic route, has been hit hard. The bad news about the company seems to appear at an uncomfortable frequency. The latest is the agreement between its pilot union and the airline to accept another round of pay cuts in order to prevent further job loses among its ranks. Earlier in the month, the firm had just announced a redundancy programme affecting 20 per cent of all staff.
Singapore had 2.7 million visitors July year-to-date 2020, based on numbers released by the Singapore Tourism Board. This is 76 per cent lower when compared with the same figure a year ago.
Year-to-date July 2019 saw 11.1 million visitors arriving in Singapore. The month of July in 2020 saw a trickle of 6,800 visitors coming to Singapore compared with the 1.803 million in July 2019, a stunning decline of 99.6 per cent.
If not for January 2020 which saw a normal flow of visitors with 1.69 million arrivals, the numbers will be much worse. The decline started in February with 733,900 visitors and this fell to about 240,000 in March. Singapore went into lockdown in April.
Singapore tourism numbers exclude those who enter Singapore through the land crossing with Malaysia where 400,000 Malaysians come into Singapore every day to work or to go to school during pre-pandemic times.
Due to the travel curbs brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 will see the first fall in tourism numbers in Singapore since 2013. Tourist arrivals and has been climbing since 2014 with 15.1 million visitors rising to 19.1 million in 2019 - an impressive increase of 26.5 per cent over six years.
Singapore is the fifth most visited city in the world in 2019, ahead of glamourous cities like Paris and New York. Among foreign visitors, Indians rank number 3 after the Chinese and Indonesians. Indeed, Indians have been embracing Singapore as a preferred destination of interest with 1.42 million travelings to Singapore in 2019.
Tourism contributed SGD27.1 billion (USD19.7 billion) of revenue to Singapore's economy in 2019. This represents about 4 per cent of GDP. The latest figure published for tourism receipts shows that travellers spent a total of SGD4 billion in the first quarter of this year. This is down just 39 per cent compared with a year ago boosted by a "normal" January. Q2 will be much worse.
To help the local tourism industry, the Singapore government announced in August that it was issuing SGD100 vouchers to all citizens which can be spent on hotel stays, local attractions, and tours. This is expected to make an SGD320 million (USD232 million) dent in the government budget.
Moody Investor Services said in a sector assessment published on August 25 that the travel and tourism industry is unlikely to return to normal in the next three to five years. It added that the hospitality sector may start to see hints of improvement in the second half of 2020 but will be "nowhere near" pre-pandemic volumes.
Even if the number of cases is stabilising in some parts of the world, Moody's said consumers' willingness to travel will still be impaired by health concerns, and the weakened economic conditions provide for less disposable income for personal travellers.
Although Moody's does not think that business travel will go to zero as some fear, the cost-effective nature of teleconferencing may become entrenched in some companies.
In a tourism industry virtual roundtable on September 24 hosted by the Singapore Tourism Board, it's Chief Executive, Mr Keith Tan, warned industry members that they must be prepared for a long winter even if a vaccine for the coronavirus is available soon. "It may take many years, possibly three ... to five years for ... international visitor arrivals to return to 2019 pre-COVID-19 levels," Mr Tan was quoted by Singapore's Straits Times as saying.
He went on to urge businesses not to go into hibernation but to work on developing offerings that can help differentiate Singapore as a travel destination. Businesses will have to be creative in coming up with new revenue streams in the interim, and some may have to reposition or pivot their business to survive. He further stated that the Singapore government will make support available to sustain new capabilities.
"We need to be prepared for travelers who are looking for more exclusive, smaller scale or special experiences that are hard to find elsewhere because we believe that in the years after COVID-19, people will not be traveling so frequently," he added. (ANI)