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Tourists Return to Singapore After SARS

Singapore's tourism sector, one of its pillar industries, was severely damaged during the outbreak of SARS earlier this year. Since then, the government has been doing its utmost to revive the sector.


The island state's tourism industry employs some 150,000 people and accounts for about 10 percent of its economy of S$150 billion (US$87 billion) a year.


It also attracts some 8 million visitors - twice its population - each year from all over the world.


The tourism industry survived the heavy blows of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 and the Iraq War this year. It emerged as a beacon for the sluggish Singaporean economy.


However, the industry - a powerhouse for both economic growth and employment - was devastated by the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in early March 2003. Visitor arrivals plunged by 74 percent year-on-year in early May when the SARS crisis was at its peak. Tourist resorts such as the Bird Park and the Sentosa Island, once packed with visitors, were almost deserted.


Tourism-related businesses, such as transport, hotel, food and beverage companies, were also affected. Singapore's Changi Airport, one of the region's busiest, saw far fewer passengers as people avoided traveling and airlines cut their flights. Hotel occupancy rates dropped from the normal 70 percent to 10-20 percent. Restaurants and food courts were half-empty, as few foreigners visited while locals opted to eat at home.


In a recent interview with Xinhua News Agency, Lim Neo-chian, deputy chairman and chief executive of the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), outlined the measures it has taken in the past few months to counter the SARS outbreak and lure visitors back to the country.


During the SARS period, the STB rolled out two major marketing campaigns, "Cool Singapore Award" and "Step Out! Singapore," to restore confidence in the tourism industry.


The "Cool Singapore Award" certification system was launched on April 29 to implement best practices in SARS prevention. The certification system included compulsory staff temperature checks in hotels and other tourism facilities, the highest standards of disinfection, and screening of vendors and suppliers. It was later extended to businesses such as airport and convention venues.


The STB recognized the heightened importance and potential of domestic tourism during the SARS period by spending S$2 million (US$1.1 million) on the "Step Out! Singapore" programme. The campaign was aimed at encouraging Singaporeans to step out of their homes and get back onto the streets.


As part of the scheme, the Great Singapore Sale 2003 was launched on May 30. The six-week-long shopping festival was well received and helped boost retail sales by 6.8 percent month-on-month in June. Sales of consumer favorites such as apparel, watches and jeweler surged by over a fifth, as retailers and department stores slashed their usual prices by up to 80 percent.


Shortly after Singapore was declared SARS-free in late May, the STB, together with industry players, kicked off the next phase of recovery for the tourism industry on June 18. It unveiled details of the "Singapore Roars" programme. The initiative, costing S$200 million (US$115 million), aimed to bring visitors back to the city-state with attractive deals and an aggressive advertising blitz overseas. Countries targeted included Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Britain, Australia, the Republic of Korea, Japan, China and the United States.


The STB produced over 3 million postcards featuring tourism icons and various events with prepaid overseas postage and distributed them to all Singaporeans and residents in the country. The STB wanted to recruit them as tourism ambassadors, using the postcards to invite their relatives and friends to visit the Lion City.


At a higher level, the Singapore Government also played its part. It first unveiled a relief package worth S$230 million (US$132 million) to help SARS-affected industries such as tourism and transport overcome the impact of the disease. This was followed by a S$100-million (US$57 million) Tourism Recovery Fund, focusing on overseas travel promotions and a global advertising campaign.


And the tourism industry is already reaping the fruits of the recovery programme. Visitor arrivals rebounded by 76 percent in June from a low in May. July arrivals were also about 43 percent higher than in June. The STB hopes to bring in 4 million visitors over the June-December period and some S$4 billion (US$2.3 billion) in tourism receipts.


According to STB statistics, China has in recent years been among the biggest and fastest-growing sources of visitors to Singapore. Some 670,000 Chinese tourists visited the city-state last year, spending a total of around S$330 million (US$188 million).


The STB predicts that with the rapid economic progress China has made in the past 20 years, an increasing number of Chinese tourists with more spending power are likely to travel overseas. And Singapore will be one of their prime destinations, as the two countries are closely linked by their peoples and culture.


The STB has also joined with Singapore's Immigration and Checkpoints Authority to launch a six-month pilot programme for independent travelers from China. Under the programme, non-group travelers do not need to go to the Singapore Embassy or consulates personally to apply for a visa. They also no longer have to lodge a security deposit of 5,000 yuan (US$600).


(China Daily October 8, 2003)

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