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Feb 20, 2011
Singapore wasn't exactly what I had expected it to be.
In the weeks leading up to my trip last October, I'd spoken to fellow travelers who had been there before. Each one, more or less, used the same phrases to describe the diminutive Southeast Asian city-state: very efficient; highly regulated; extremely clean; an ideal stopover; anti-chewing gum.
To some extent, Singapore was all of those things but, as I soon found out, it was also so much more.
From its very beginnings, Singapore has been characterized by change. The former British colony became a fully independent nation less than half a century ago, in 1965. Since then, however, the country has transformed itself from a gritty port city into a thoroughly modern metropolis -- an economic superpower, complete with glittering skyscrapers and labyrinthine mega-malls. In that time, Singapore crafted a reputation for itself as a leading business destination and gateway to Southeast Asia. Now, however, the country is eager to shed its stopover status.
"We don't see ourselves as a stopover destination anymore," said Serene Tan, Singapore Tourism Board area director, Eastern U.S. and South America. "We are a must-see destination -- three days is no longer enough time to spend in Singapore because there is so much to do. With all of our new offerings, we hope that we will change people's mindsets about what Singapore is all about and how much time they need to spend there. We hope to continue to surprise visitors that way."
Placing Its Bets
It's that kind of determination on the part of Singapore's government and tourism sector, ostensibly, that led to what many critics deemed to be its greatest gamble: the introduction of casino resorts in a country where legalized gambling had not been allowed in nearly 46 years.
The government's decision to introduce gaming was part of the Singapore Tourism Board's 10-year master plan, introduced in 2005, to double annual international tourism numbers to 17 million and to generate revenues of more than $22 billion by 2015. Also included in those plans were such new developments as the Formula One Singtel Singapore Grand Prix, the world's only Grand Prix night race (debuted in 2008); hosting the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in August 2010; the construction of a 250-acre public park, Gardens by the Bay (slated to open later this year); and the development of a brand-new International Cruise Terminal, large enough to accommodate Oasis-class vessels (also slated to open in this year). Five years into the plan, the two integrated resorts -- Resorts World Sentosa (opened in January 2010) and Marina Bay Sands (opened in April 2010) -- finally came into fruition.
It was a calculated risk, but one that, so far, seems to have paid off. In 2010, Singapore saw record-breaking tourism numbers, welcoming a total of some 10.5 million international visitors from January to November, a 20.7 percent increase from its total visitor arrivals in 2009. Travelers from the U.S. accounted for 382,650 visitors in that same period, a 12.8 percent increase from 2009.
Indeed, the two properties are stunning -- perhaps somewhat overwhelming -- in their scope. As it is now, Resorts World Sentosa, located on the family-friendly playground of Sentosa Island just south of Singapore, comprises four different hotels; an expansive casino; Southeast Asia's only Universal Studios theme park; and dozens of dining and shopping outlets, including restaurants from such renowned chefs as Joel Robuchon and Susur Lee. Two more hotels are scheduled to debut for a grand total of 1,850 hotel rooms when fully completed.
The 2,561-room Marina Bay Sands, built at a cost of $5.7 billion and managed by Las Vegas Sands Corp., has already become a landmark, most notably for its impressive Sands SkyPark. The massive, nearly three-acre cantilever stretches across the hotel's three, 55-story towers at a height of more than 656 feet in the air, boasting a 492-foot-long infinity pool, the world's largest outdoor pool at that height. Like Resorts World Sentosa, the Marina Bay Sands is teeming with different attractions and activities, from an ArtScience Museum and massive convention center to a Vegas-style shopping promenade and dozens of signature restaurants helmed by the likes of celebrity chefs such as Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Wolfgang Puck and Guy Savoy.
If your clients are expecting a purely Vegas-like atmosphere at Resorts World Sentosa or Marina Bay Sands, however, they may be disappointed. The casino floors are tucked away from the main accommodation areas and, while beautifully designed, they lack the over-the-top pizzazz that typifies your usual Las Vegas gaming establishments.
Gambling, as you might suspect, isn't as big a draw for most visiting Americans as it is for visitors from Singapore's main tourism source markets of Indonesia, Malaysia and China. Instead, the integrated resorts are introducing more Americans to Singapore as a whole.
"The integrated resorts sparked off a lot of excitement and development in the tourism industry here," said Tan. "They've strengthened our product rather than detracting from what Singapore already is by building on our identity, and giving our visitors a lot more options to choose from."
Beyond the Integrated Resorts
Indeed, there is no shortage of options for visitors traveling to Singapore, as I discovered. Rather, the resorts mark a renaissance period for a nation eager to show the world that it is much more than a little red dot on the map.
To that end, there are now even more shopping attractions for visitors to experience in a country where shopping is considered a national pastime. The revitalized Orchard Road, Singapore's equivalent of Rodeo Drive, is a shopper's mecca. Home to plaza after plaza of shops, from Prada to Forever 21, it includes the recently opened ION Orchard shopping complex, which has more than 300 shops and eateries alone. Youthful boutiques line the narrow alleyways of Haji Lane in the Muslim quarter of Kampong Glam, where homegrown designers sell their wares in shops like those you might find in New York's East Village.
Clients whose preferences lean more toward the great outdoors than the highly air-conditioned indoors of Singapore's shopping complexes will not be disappointed, either. The "Garden City" is home to plenty of green spaces, including the sprawling Singapore Botanic Gardens, home to the National Orchid Garden. And even in some of Singapore's most urban areas, you would be hard pressed not to spot green foliage in the form of lush trees and flowers.
By the end of this year, the first phase of the new 250-acre Gardens by the Bay project will open. Adjacent to the Marina Bay Sands, this public waterfront park will feature clusters of manmade "supertrees" that range in height from 90 to 165 feet tall. These vertical gardens are purported to be the ultimate models of eco-efficiency, serving as receptacles for rainwater, providing shade, lighting up the night sky and even housing food and beverage outlets. A new River Safari attraction, scheduled to open in mid 2012, is also currently under construction, to be located near the site of Singapore's highly popular Zoological Gardens and Night Safari attraction.
Moreover, a flourishing arts scene has also taken hold, as evidenced by high-profile contemporary art fairs such as last month's Art Stage Singapore; glittering stage productions such as "The Lion King" at Marina Bay Sands; and a comprehensive network of museums celebrating arts, culture and history. Currently, Singapore's former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings are being transformed into the future home of the National Art Gallery, Singapore, which is slated to open in 2013.
Melding the Past With the Present
Yet as much as there seems to be an emphasis on newness in Singapore, you also get the sense that this is a place that reveres its past, too. For every new novelty, there is an equivalent nod to the country's heritage and history.
This careful balance is put on display at the revitalized Fullerton Heritage precinct. Located in the heart of the city's historic waterfront area, it consists of the brand-new Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore, sister property to the city's former palatial post-office-turned-luxury hotel, the Fullerton Hotel Singapore. While the Fullerton Bay is decidedly modern in its design, it remains thoroughly connected to its past, quite literally, as it sits side-by-side to the Clifford Pier, the historic landing port for some of Singapore's earliest immigrants and settlers, wayfarers from China, Malaysia, Indonesia and India.
Because of Singapore's favorable geographical location on the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula, it has become a Southeast Asian melting pot for different cultures and faiths. Today, that unique blend of multicultural influences and histories still exists. You see it best when walking through the city's vibrant ethnic enclaves -- Little India, Kampong Glam and Chinatown.
"When you spend time in Chinatown, Little India or Kampong Glam, you realize that these are not tourist traps," said Tan. "They are very much living enclaves, where locals come to live and play."
Walking down the main thoroughfare of Little India's Serangoon Road, our group decided to take a detour, stopping inside the bustling Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. Inside was a microcosm of Singapore's diversity: groups of young schoolchildren crowded the entrance, with some kids even attempting to apply their own henna designs; the heady fragrance of burning incense and sweet flowers filled the air; and women in brightly colored saris gathered together to prepare their offerings. Later, in Chinatown, I entertained myself by watching older gentlemen, brows furrowed, as they engaged in serious games of mahjong in the main plaza outside.
"Singapore's multicultural background is set against a very cosmopolitan, English-speaking environment," Tan said. "We offer a concentration of different sights, sounds and cultures in a very compact, accessible city. That's who we are."
The city's ethnic enclaves are also home to some of Singapore's newest boutique hotels, many of which reside in converted colonial buildings. Last year, Little India saw the opening of Wanderlust, the latest property from famed Singapore hotelier Loh Lik Peng, the same man behind Chinatown's groundbreaking Hotel 1929, the property that sparked Singapore's boutique hotels trend in 2003.
The best way, I found, to really experience the depth of Singapore's varied cultural influences was through its cuisine. It seems as if, for every one of Singapore's celebrity-chef branded establishments, there's an equally soul-satisfying meal to be had in the most unassuming of places. This is especially true in Singapore's humble hawker centers where you can feast on buttery Hainanese chicken rice, rich Peranakan-style (Chinese-Malay or Chinese-Indonesian) beef rendang, piping-hot discs of roti prata; sweet-and-savory chilli crabs; and steaming bowls of spicy laksa noodle soup -- all in one sitting if you dare.
Last year, Singapore became the first international destination to host a "Top Chef" television series finale. This March, the tourism board is launching a global campaign, the Singapore International Culinary Exchange (SPICE), aimed at showcasing Singapore as a must-visit foodie destination. The SPICE program includes a pop-up restaurant concept, Singapore Takeout, which will visit New York in August, as well as a global chef exchange program.
Branding initiatives such as SPICE are just one of many strategies being employed by the tourism board in order to attract visitors from the U.S. For the organization, communicating directly with travel agent partners also remains a key initiative through established agent education programs and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, said Tan.
"Our Singapore Specialist education program for travel agents is essential, especially now, because Singapore has undergone so many transformations," she said. "It's important that our partners are kept abreast of all of these new developments."
On my way back home, I decided to create my own list of phrases to describe Singapore. For me, it was a moveable feast. It was forward-thinking, yet mindful of its past. And most of all, it was surprising -- the true mark of a destination that continues to reinvent itself.
Scroll down for information on upcoming tourism developments in Singapore
Click here to read an
Ideal Itinerary in Singapore
Singapore Tourism Board
New Developments in 2011 and Beyond
- Reopening of the Sentosa Boardwalk, a footbridge connecting the mainland of Singapore to Sentosa Island (opened on Jan. 29)
- Maritime Xperiential Museum, an interactive museum at Resorts World Sentosa that details the history of the Maritime Silk Route along the Strait of Malacca (opening soon)
- Equarius Hotel and Spa Villas hotel properties at Resorts World Sentosa (opening soon)
- W Singapore & Sentosa Cove (opening in April 2012)
Marina Bay Sands
- ArtScience Museum (opened on Feb. 17)
- Crystal Pavilions, including Louis Vuitton Island, a floating retail "island" of luxury goods, and the Avalon Nightclub (opening in 2011)
Gardens by the Bay
A 250-acre public garden space located next to Marina Bay Sands (opening in 2011)
International Cruise Terminal
A brand-new terminal large enough to accommodate Oasis-class ships (opening in 2011)
A new zoological attraction located near Singapore's famous Zoological Gardens and Night Safari (opening in mid 2012)
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