This article was first published on Dec 28, 2014
They loiter around tourist spots and arrival halls, striking up conversations with small groups of tourists before offering to help them beat the long queues at taxi stands.
After agreeing on a fee, they usher the tourists to minibuses waiting nearby, but away from public view. Charges range between $40 and $70 to transport groups as large as 13 people.
For more than a decade, bus touts have been operating discreetly at the entrances to attractions, such as the Singapore Flyer, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Zoo and Sentosa, as well as the arrival halls of Changi Airport and ferry terminals like the Singapore Cruise Centre at HarbourFront.
But in recent years, there has been a proliferation of such illegal bus services, as drivers have found this to be a more flexible and lucrative alternative to driving a taxi.
They have even organised themselves into small groups, relying on walkie-talkies and WhatsApp group chats to tip one another off when the authorities are near.
"These bus touts are getting bolder," said Mr V. Anilan, managing director of local operator Bus Hub, which provides scheduled bus services to and from attractions such as the zoo and Sentosa. "They are stealing our business and have made it a free-for-all situation."
However, bus drivers will soon be governed by anti-touting laws. Starting on Thursday, bus drivers caught touting their transport services can face a fine of up to $1,000 or a jail term of up to three months. This new Land Transport Authority regulation applies to holders of the Bus Driver's Vocational Licence, a requirement for those who drive private buses.
"Even before this, bus drivers were told it was illegal to tout when they got their vocational licences," said Woodlands Transport general manager Roger Wong. He believes only a small group of bus drivers is breaking the rules, adding: "The touts tend to be drivers of smaller buses as they are easier to fill. It is more difficult to tout for passengers to fill a larger bus."
When The Sunday Times visited HarbourFront Centre, a shopping mall next to the Singapore Cruise Centre, last Tuesday evening, six middle-aged men, several decked out in neatly pressed shirts and trousers, were seen touting near a taxi stand, where a long queue of about 80 people had formed.
They took turns to keep a lookout for the authorities. One of the men was overheard asking two British tourists: "Do you need transport? You don't have to wait at the taxi stand. You can follow me."
After agreeing on a fee, the two tourists were told to wait at a spot 50m to the left of the taxi stand, out of view of the security guards.
"The queue is just too long," said Mr Dan Smith, one of the tourists, adding that he did not know touting is illegal here.
Five minutes later, a 10-seater minibus pulled up by the kerb and picked up the tourists with their luggage.
Over at the zoo, there were no signs of touting when The Sunday Times visited last Wednesday, given ongoing efforts to clamp down on the activity.
Since Dec 20, three of Bus Hub's staff, together with security personnel from Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), have been taking turns to conduct regular checks around the bus parks there. Signs have also been put up by WRS to discourage tourists from using services provided by bus touts.
"If there are any private minibuses loitering in the area, we will be informed," said Bus Hub's Mr Anilan, adding that the area used to see three to five bus touts daily. "The touts haven't shown up since."
One tout, who would not reveal his name, said that with rising rental and petrol costs, they have no choice but to solicit for customers.
According to him, many bus touts are former MaxiCab drivers who have switched to driving private excursion buses. The cost of driving a seven-seater MaxiCab is on the rise, with drivers paying $163 per day for rental, up from $110 five years ago. The rental cost of a regular taxi ranges from $110 to $130, from about $80 to $100 five years back.
A minibus, on the other hand, costs between $60 and $70 daily.
The 50-year-old, who has been in the business for the past three years, said bus touts can earn between $50 and $65 per trip, and they can make up to seven trips on a good day. "Most tourists don't really care whether the transport they are taking is illegal or not, so long as they can get to their destinations," he said. "When there is a demand for such services, there will be a supply. It will not be easy to stop bus drivers from touting."