SINGAPORE - Tourism numbers for Singapore hit new lows last year, but the industry is hopeful of a bounce back this year as global vaccination rates rise.
The number of visitors to Singapore plunged from 2.7 million in 2020 to just below 330,000 last year - less than 2 per cent of the 19 million who arrived pre-Covid-19 in 2019.
Still, more than 120,000 of the arrivals last year came in November and December, after the launch of 24 air vaccinated travel lanes (VTLs), starting in September.
There was also an uptick in the final months of last year in passports issued, even though the year had the fewest number for passport renewals and applications in 15 years.
Travel restrictions and border closures saw the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) issue 281,918 passports last year, the fewest since 2006 when citizens received 353,562 passports.
Of the new passports last year, 103,968, or just over a third, were issued in the last three months, after the ICA announced that those aged 16 and above can apply for passports with 10-year validity from October.
The number of Singaporeans renewing their passports or applying for new ones continued to slide amid the Covid-19 pandemic, with passports issued in 2021 plunging to a 15-year low.
Travel restrictions and border closures saw the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) issue 281,918 passports last year, the fewest since 2006 when Singapore citizens received 353,562 passports.
New passports are issued when an existing one has expired or is going to expire, or when someone who does not have a passport applies for one, including parents applying for passports for their children.
There was an uptick towards the end of last year, after the ICA announced that citizens aged 16 and above would be able to apply for passports with a 10-year validity from Oct 1, 2021. Those of citizens below the age of 16 remain at five years as their facial features continue to change as they grow, ICA had said.
Of the newly issued passports last year, 103,968, or just over a third, were issued in the last three months of 2021.
Singapore citizens had received 711,617 passports in 2019, but as the virus spread around the world and forced governments to close borders, ICA issued only 320,709 passports in 2020.
The sharp drop is not surprising given high Covid-19 rates in many countries and quarantine rules in various jurisdictions, said Mr Chew Kian Beng, course chair of Temasek Polytechnic's hospitality and tourism management programme.
"The biggest fear for travellers is less of Covid-19 infection and more of overnight curbs cancelling travel routes - or worse, being left stranded in a foreign land," he added.
Singapore's first Covid-19 case was reported on Jan 23, 2020.
By March the same year, it was forced to close its borders to short-term visitors and some foreign labourers, after its first two coronavirus-related deaths were confirmed.
The country then went through a lockdown on April 7.
By the second half of 2021, various jurisdictions had eased travel restrictions, with quarantine-free travel between Singapore and selected countries under the vaccinated travel lane (VTL) scheme with lower Covid-19 risk starting last September.
However, Dr Michael Chiam, a senior tourism lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, said most Singaporeans are still cautious about travelling overseas, "especially with the high infection rate around the world from the new Omicron variant".
"People are beginning to travel due to the opening of more VTLs but the full recovery will likely take place in two to three years' time."
But even VTLs are not certainties.
Last month, Singapore froze all new ticket sales for VTL flights and buses between Dec 23 last year and Jan 20 this year amid a rapid spread of Omicron cases in many countries.
Ms Ng Peiru, a publicist, said that she had received an e-mail from ICA last February to renew her five-year-old daughter's passport but decided against it.
"There were different priorities at the time so renewing her passport, which would have expired last October, was not very important especially when travelling overseas was not on the horizon," said the 33-year-old mother of two.
She renewed her daughter's passport only in time for a cruise to nowhere that her family took in November last year.
Unlike the NRIC, the Singapore passport is not a mandatory identity document, ICA had previously said.
Mr Abdul Haqem'Ulddin, who intends to travel to the United States in March, welcomed the savings that come with his new passport's longer validity.
The 29-year-old application engineer’s travel document was due to expire next month and he renewed it last month.
"It is going to cost me less as I don't have to pay twice as much for renewal every five years," said Mr Haqem, who noted that there was no change to the passport application fee, which remains at $70.
Mr Jeremiah Wong, senior communications manager at travel agency Chan Brothers, said the industry remains hopeful that travel will pick up.
He noted that the Omicron threat has not had a significant impact on confirmed VTL bookings.
Said Mr Wong: "So far, our VTL sales, which include package tours, flight and accommodation bookings, amount to 5 per cent of what we used to see before the pandemic.
"We are seeing positive reception from our customers overall thus far despite a couple of bumps along the way such as the Omicron variant causing governments around the world to impose new testing requirements and border restrictions temporarily."