Call for more niche tourist guides to offer visitors local experiences

Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat (right), accompanied by tourist guide Catherine Ross (centre), visiting bird-cage maker and principal consultant of BirdsAsia Teng Leng Foo during a tour of the Ang Mo Kio precinct on Marc
Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat (right), accompanied by tourist guide Catherine Ross (centre), visiting bird-cage maker and principal consultant of BirdsAsia Teng Leng Foo during a tour of the Ang Mo Kio precinct on March 22, 2019.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - Experts in the areas of Singapore's food and nature are being encouraged to share their passion with visitors to the Republic under a new scheme to meet the growing demand for interest-based tours.

Those with rich knowledge in specific areas can apply to the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to attain an Area Tourist Guide licence, which allows them to be practising tour guides in their areas of interest without having to obtain the full tourist guide certification.

The scheme was soft launched last October, starting with the food and nature categories. There are already 32 successful candidates, including food blogger Maureen Ow, better known as Miss Tam Chiak.

Applicants must have their experience and skills assessed and, if necessary, complete training. Full-fledged tourist guides can also apply for the licence.

Announcing the official launch on Friday (March 22), Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat said the scheme aims to help showcase Singapore's heritage, culture and way of life, in line with travellers' growing interest in authentic local experiences.

Speaking to the media after a neighbourhood tour in Ang Mo Kio, he said: "In the past, I think we may not have focused enough on this area but now it's something we're trying to grow."

Tours that go into the heartland can also benefit neighbourhood businesses, Mr Chee added.

Mr Yeo Hiang Meng, president of the Federation of Merchants' Associations, Singapore, said growing tourism in the heartland must be done with residents in mind.

"They don't want noisy tour buses and big groups of tourists coming here and pushing up prices. But it is still early days, and a lot of tourists nowadays do free and easy, so I don't think those will be issues," he said.

The STB's Tour Design Challenge, which was held between May and October last year, led to the development of 16 new local tours to be launched this year, including several in the heartland.

The Ang Mo Kio tour by operator Oriental Travel and Tours is one of them. Stops on the tour include the Kebun Baru Bird Corner, a shop belonging to one of Singapore's few remaining bird-cage makers, and a wet market spice stall offering tourist-friendly packaging.

The tour operator's co-founder Jasmine Tan was retrenched from the advertising industry in 2012 and decided after a few years of freelance work to put her SkillsFuture credits towards a tourist guide course.

This was where she met Mr Stanley Foo, with whom she founded Oriental Travel and Tours last year.

The two qualified for funding from STB in designing their heartland tour in Ms Tan's neighbourhood.

"For places like Universal Studios, tourists can go on their own. But without a tourist guide to bring them here, I don't think they can find these places," said Ms Tan, 50.

The heartland tour runs three to four times a week, with small groups of between two and six people.

While most of the customers are from the United States and Europe, locals do sometimes join in and discover hidden gems, she added.

At the Kebun Baru Bird Corner, for example, ornate bird cages hang from poles that dot a large open field. Their owners while away the time chatting in a nearby hut.

Working out of a nearby shop, Mr Teng Leng Foo, 72, is one of the few remaining specialists who handcraft cages for the prized merbok birds that compete in singing competitions every weekend.

Mr Teng, who has spent 60 years in the trade, said his cages are too large for tourists to take home as souvenirs.

"But it is good that they can come here and learn about the hobbies of Singaporeans," he said.