SINGAPORE - The Arcade in Raffles Place used to be teeming during lunch hour on a weekday afternoon with people hoping to snag currencies at a good rate at the mall's various money changers.
This scene is now a relic of the past as the Covid-19-induced dearth of travel has dealt a heavy blow to such businesses.
There were few customers at money changers when The Straits Times visited the mall on Monday (Oct 11), even after last Saturday's announcement that vaccinated travellers will be able to fly to nine more countries and return without quarantine in the coming weeks.
Businesses told ST the road ahead is still bumpy due to lingering Covid-19 uncertainties and the ongoing lack of quarantine-free arrangements with countries in the region. However, they expect demand to increase slightly in the next few months as more people scratch their itch to travel.
Mr Abdul Haleem, a partner at City Money Changers, said the business has seen a 5 per cent uptick in inquiries in recent weeks about rates of currencies like the British pound and Canadian dollar.
More customers have also asked about the Japanese yen, which has slipped in the past week, he noted.
"It's a good time for them to buy and hold currencies for future travels because demand will increase once borders open up and rates might not be as good then," said Mr Abdul, who expects business to recover by the end of the year.
Quarantine-free travel is a game-changer as it greatly reduces the hassle of going overseas, especially for individual travellers, couples and those doing business abroad, he added.
"Other countries are huge and people can visit different parts of the country, but it's not the case here. Singaporeans feel stressed and they long to travel," said Mr Abdul, who sits on the Money Changers Association's management committee.
He said footfall has fallen by around 90 per cent for most money changers since the pandemic.
Wage support from the Government has helped, but many money changers dug into their reserves of funds to keep their businesses afloat, and some also closed temporarily, he said.
Money-changing licensees can apply to the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) for a temporary cessation of their business for up to six months.
A MAS spokesman told ST there are currently 289 money changers in Singapore - down from 325 as at end-2019 - and 45 of them have temporarily ceased their business.
Mr Mohamed Thawheed, who works at Time Exchange in The Arcade, expects business to pick up only next year. "People will only travel once they are confident that the virus situation has stabilised," he said.
Middle-income customers are likely to put travel plans on hold as they save up for a rainy day amid the ongoing economic recovery, he said, while richer customers prefer to use credit cards overseas instead of carrying cash.
Mr Habib Mohamed, the manager of Faizam Forex, said business will bounce back fully only when quarantine-free travel is possible with South-east Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.
"It is cheaper for the middle class to travel in the region," he said.
Ms Angela Oh, 53, was among the few people swapping their Singapore dollars at the mall on Monday afternoon. She changed about C$1,600 (S$1,740) for her Toronto-based daughter, who had returned in August and is about to fly back.
Though it might be cheaper to travel with the costs of quarantine removed, Ms Oh is uncertain whether the Vaccinated Travel Lanes will last. She said: "We don't know if they will be gone, just like the travel bubble with Hong Kong (which was scrapped)."
Over at People's Park Complex, fewer than five people visited money changers on the first floor in half an hour. They include local customers who changed foreign currencies back to Singapore dollars.
Mr Sirajudin Ghouseiam, a partner at Sirajudin Money Changer, said he made less than $15 as at Monday afternoon but needs about $200 to cover rent and workers' salaries.
He hopes things will look up later this month but doubts that leisure travel will recover quickly. "Due to changing rules amid the pandemic, some attractions in other countries might be closed, which might make people not want to go overseas," he said.