Singapore is counting on a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign
with glitzy attractions and discounted travel packages to lure back
travelers frightened off by the SARS outbreak, but experts say it
could take months before things return to normal.
Leisure and business travel to the Lion City plummeted following
the first reports of the flu-like disease in mid-March.
At the depths of the crisis in April and May, visitor arrivals
were down roughly 70 percent from last-year levels. While occupancy
rates in some hotels dropped as low as 5 percent.
The removal of the city-state from the World Health
Organization’s list of SARS-affected areas on May 31, however, has
sparked optimism that a rebound in the embattled travel sector may
finally be taking hold.
While arrivals continued to drop in June from a year earlier,
the pace of decline slowed.
Preliminary estimates indicate that arrivals were down 56
percent in June versus a year earlier. And compared with May’s
dismal numbers, June arrivals were estimated to actually have risen
47 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis.
“The signs so far are positive that we have turned the corner on
visitor arrivals and that we can expect a steady and sustainable
recovery in the coming months, said Lim Neo Chian, chief executive
of the Singapore Tourism Board.
Still, travel industry officials and analysts say restoring
business to pre-SARS levels won’t happen overnight.
“There is still a perception of a safety risk in coming to
Asia,” said Mark Webb, a Singapore-based airline analyst for HSBC
“It will take long-haul travelers about three to six months to
get relaxed about travel to Asia,” he said. “A lot of people have
mentally crossed off Asia as a tourist destination for a
In the meantime, bargain airfares are helping carriers fill
seats that otherwise would have gone empty.
In the case of Singapore Airlines, 15,000 tickets were snapped
up in a matter of hours last month when the national carrier last
month cut prices by up to 75 percent on flights to the
“These kinds of things are going to have an impact,” said Peter
Harbison, managing director of the Sydney-based Centre for Asia
“People tend to be very easily influenced by cheap prices. The
only risk from the airlines’ perspective, of course, is starting to
create expectations that fares will always be this low,” he
Winning back the hearts and wallets of visitors is an economic
priority for not only Singapore, but also Hong Kong, which was
taken off the WHO’s SARS list on June 23.
Tourism generates between 5 percent and 6 percent of annual
economic growth in both cities, a far greater percentage than in
other SARS-hit areas in Asia, such as mainland China and
The World Travel & Tourism Council, a global industry body
with its headquarters in London, estimated that Hong Kong will lose
about $3.6 billion, and Singapore about $2.6 billion from their
broader tourism economies this year because of SARS.
Singapore is enlisting the services of Ricky Martin, World
Wrestling Entertainment Smackdown and Bollywood stars from India to
entice travelers as part of its $115 million “Singapore Roars”
campaign that will extend for six months.
Not to be outdone, Hong Kong has launched a nine-month, $50
million marketing campaign with Jackie Chan as its main
The response from the United States to Hong Kong’s effort is “so
far so good,” said Lillibeth Bishop, a Los Angeles-based
spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
Tourists weren’t the only visitors to abandon Singapore and Hong
Kong in the wake of SARS. Business travelers avoided all but
essential travel there.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore is working to
overcome continuing perceptions among business travelers that SARS
still presents a health risk on Singapore.
“We see confidence returning. Our members are reporting that
Singapore is back on the travel agenda of business colleagues,”
said Kristin Paulson, AmCham chairman.
“Internationally there may be still pockets of hesitancy about
visiting Asia but good news is not always compelling news, so the
message can be a difficult one to promote.”