Bringing Singapore to foreigners through virtual tours and experiences amid Covid-19

Virtual local tours and experiences are attracting foreigners curious to learn about the sights and sounds in Singapore. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MONSTER DAY TOURS

SINGAPORE - With the Covid-19 pandemic, virtual local tours and experiences are attracting not only Singapore residents but also foreigners curious to learn about the sights and sounds here, or how life in Singapore compares with depictions in the cinema.

While the virtual tour experience remains novel to many, including tour guides here, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) is looking to promote more of such local experiences abroad and encouraging local tour providers to take their tours online.

Last Thursday (Oct 22), STB and Airbnb signed a two-year memorandum of understanding to promote the local tours and experiences on Airbnb's platform.

The tours already on online platforms, such as TourHQ and Airbnb's Online Experiences, include on-site elements like live streamed walkabouts or cooking demonstrations, while others consist of pre-recorded segments, with hosts in their own homes or offices while engaging participants.

Ms P.S. Yeo is one of several here who have taken their tours and experiences online, in a bid to continue hosting travellers while globetrotting remains a challenge due to border restrictions arising from Covid-19.

Ms Yeo, who owns and operates Everyday Tour Company, started the Explore Crazy And Rich Singapore online tour in July, and said the majority of her participants are from abroad.

Her tour, centered around the 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians which features Singapore prominently, aims to compare the lived experiences of Singaporeans to that portrayed in the movie, and has drawn audiences from around the world.

"The movie was super popular in the United States, so many of the tour participants come from there, but I've also received sign-ups from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and China," said Ms Yeo.

"The tour was always designed for an overseas market. I thought the movie was a good way for me to introduce Singapore to these audiences."

Mr Dhruv Shanker said his virtual cooking classes have been popular enough among foreigners for him to run them daily at 6am. PHOTO: COURTESY OF DHRUV SHANKER

She hosts between 20 and 60 participants per week, depending on her schedule and whether she receives group bookings.

Like Ms Yeo, other tour operators and hosts are tailoring their tours and experiences to suit overseas audiences to give foreigners a better understanding of Singapore life.

Mr Dhruv Shanker, an expatriate from India, said his virtual cooking classes have been popular enough among foreigners for him to run them daily at 6am to cater to participants from the western hemisphere, before he begins work later in the morning as a marketing consultant.

Mr Shanker, who has lived here for almost seven years, said while his current classes focus on Indian food, he also makes it a point to share a list of must-eat hawker food and Singapore delicacies participants should try out here.

"When we're cooking we don't just talk about food - many are curious about life in Singapore. They ask me about the education system, law and order... It's a great way to find out more about the country. Sometimes, they even wonder about the view from my balcony," he said.

The former chef, who has been running food blog The Mad Onion Slicer since 2006, has about 50 students per week on average, with about 90 per cent of them tuning in to the classes from abroad. When he ran physical classes in his apartment mostly on weekend afternoons before the coronavirus pandemic, about half the participants were tourists from overseas.

For tour operator Monster Day Tours, its fortnightly virtual tours of one-north - which it dubs the "Silicon Valley of Singapore" - are mostly attended by locals but there are some foreign participants too.

Its founder Mr Suen Tat Yam said that about 80 per cent of the tour participants are Singapore residents, while the remaining 20 per cent are mostly from other parts of Asia.

He attributes this to the timing of the tours, which take place at 10.30am on Saturdays.

The company intends to add more virtual tour locations, and make such tours a permanent fixture in its offerings.

"There are some who do not have the privilege to travel, but still want to explore new places. We want to make tours accessible to them too," said Mr Suen.

Mrs Vandana Om Kumar, founder of TourHQ, a platform that connects guides and travellers around the world, said that virtual tours might be here to stay.

"It is budget friendly, and makes locations abroad a lot more accessible," she said. "You can only take that many vacations in a year, but with virtual travel, travellers can easily experience 10 different locations in a short period."

Monster Day Tours' fortnightly virtual tours of one-north are mostly attended by locals. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MONSTER DAY TOURS

Mrs Om Kumar said virtual tours will also remain popular among senior citizens who may face mobility challenges when travelling.

But it remains to be seen whether virtual tours will be a game-changer financially, said Mr Ng Boon Gee, senior director of business development at Gardens by the Bay, which started offering virtual content on its website during the circuit breaker period and now hosts live virtual tours, workshops and webinars.

However, he noted that virtual tours have their benefits.

"Virtual tours have helped us to extend our outreach to new audiences who may otherwise not have thought of visiting the gardens or are unable to do so because of current travel restrictions," said Mr Ng.

Guides and tour operators here said virtual tours will not cannibalise future physical visits to the country.

Said Mr Suen: "If done well, the virtual tours will supplement physical ones. They are more of an opportunity than a threat. Even for local audiences, there are many who are seeing places in Singapore for the first time online, and express that they eventually want to visit them."

Mr Shanker said such virtual experiences are like an "appetiser" that will eventually bring travellers here for the "main course".

"I use locally sourced kampung chicken for my lessons. We once had a conversation for 15 minutes during a virtual class just about the chicken. But the participants don't just want to hear about it, they want to come and see and feel it," he said.

Heritage blogger Jerome Lim, who is running virtual tours of several sites in Singapore, including state properties like Old Kallang Airport, said: "Travellers will likely use this pandemic period to take a step back to plan their future trips.

"We have a chance to show them a different side of Singapore now, and encourage them to consider going off the beaten path when they eventually come."

Ms Jean Wang, chairman of the Society of Tourist Guides Singapore, said that while operators and guides conducting virtual tours are in the minority, she welcomes the idea of such tours.

"Covid-19 has caused us to explore new options, and if we can monetise virtual tours, then we (the guides) should give ourselves a chance and try it," she said.

Ms Wang also expressed hopes virtual efforts will eventually bring visitors here after the pandemic situation subsides.

"People will still want to come. The virtual tours can whet their appetite, but the dimensions they experience online are different from in-person, and they will still want to taste and smell - you cannot replicate that online."

Additional reporting by Ng Wei Kai

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