Singapore may lack the natural wonders found in many neighbouring countries but the upcoming Mandai nature and wildlife destination could help attract the growing number of eco-tourists, say experts.
Nature tourism is fast growing in the industry, said Ms Alicia Seah, Dynasty Travel's director of public relations and communications, and the "bundle of nature parks and zoological gardens" in Mandai could help boost visitorship to Singapore.
"Many tourists tend to go to our neighbours for trekking, diving and climbing, so the Mandai development could help Singapore better compete in the area of eco-tourism," she added.
Ms Seah was responding to news of Mandai being turned into a 126ha eco-tourism attraction, complete with five wildlife parks. The plans were announced yesterday by developer Mandai Safari Park Holdings.
The Mandai area is now home to the Singapore Zoo, River Safari and Night Safari. They will be joined by two new attractions - the Bird Park, which will be relocated from Jurong, and the Rainforest Park, as part of efforts to turn Mandai into a nature precinct.
Dr Michael Chiam, Ngee Ann Polytechnic's senior tourism lecturer, said it made sense to locate the five parks near one another.
"For example, one admission ticket could allow visitors to visit any of the five parks. Visitors could spend the whole day there, boosting visitorship to all the five parks," he said.
Ms Seah agreed. She pointed out that the current location of the Bird Park in Jurong made it less accessible.
Mandai Safari Park Holdings
Plans for the massive Mandai makeover were first announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in September 2014 during a live television forum.
In January last year, the Ministry of Trade and Industry said the project would be led by the Singapore Tourism Board and investment firm Temasek Holdings, which is a majority shareholder of Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS).
WRS operates the existing stable of zoos as well as the Jurong Bird Park.
Subsequently, in October, Mr S. Dhanabalan was appointed chairman of Mandai Safari Park Holdings - a wholly owned unit to oversee the "concept development" for the estate's makeover.
Mandai Safari will have 10 other directors besides Mr Dhanabalan, who was the former chairman of Temasek and now chairs its philanthropic arm Temasek Trust. They include former WRS chairman Claire Chiang and WRS' new chief executive officer Mike Barclay.
Every year, Jurong Bird Park welcomes about 800,000 visitors, about half of the 1.7 million that go to the zoo each year. The figure also pales beside the 1.1 million visitors to the Night Safari and one million to the River Safari.
"Many visitors will choose to visit the bundle of attractions in Mandai over the Bird Park in view of time constraints. With the addition of the Rainforest Park and the Bird Park to Mandai, we foresee a synergy among the five parks ," she said.
Mr Allan Chia, head of the Master of Business Administration Programme at SIM University, said the move will increase the popularity of the Bird Park. The Jurong area has evolved since 1971, when the Bird Park commenced operations, and is now an industrial neighbourhood, he said. "The contrast with a nature attraction is too stark for an effective coexistence."
Experts told The Straits Times that the move will be good not just for tourists but also for residents.
Dr Chiam said: "If the area has facilities that are relevant to the local residents, it will definitely attract them, especially since there is an upward trend of locals engaging in outdoor activities such as cycling, jogging and camping outdoors."
At the media briefing yesterday, Mr Mike Barclay, group chief executive of the Mandai Safari Park Holdings, said public spaces, such as boardwalks and playgrounds, will also be built to give visitors the chance to enjoy the greenery in the area without having to pay admission fees.
But while the new attractions have the potential to bring in the crowds, it is important to ensure that the impact on the environment is carefully managed.
Mr Chia said: "More visitors will change the character of the place significantly. These changes will affect the wildlife. Among other negative environmental impacts are pollution, congestion and deforestation."
The developers have sought to allay these concerns, saying development will take place on previously occupied and already impacted land. An environmental impact assessment was also undertaken and the results will be announced in the coming weeks.