Older attractions bite back with new offerings

Visitors posing for photographs with statues at Haw Par Villa last Friday. Construction to upgrade its infrastructure and facilities is under way at the 80-year-old park, in a bid to improve visitorship.
Visitors posing for photographs with statues at Haw Par Villa last Friday. Construction to upgrade its infrastructure and facilities is under way at the 80-year-old park, in a bid to improve visitorship.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Newer attractions, evolving consumer habits are forcing older sites to raise their game

Long before the swanky Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa were built, there was Haw Par Villa and its 10 Courts of Hell depicting the punishment of wayward souls in all its gory, uncensored glory after death.

Statues with their tongues cut off, bodies boiled in oil or sawed in half - the works captured the imagination of visitors, helping to boost visitorship to the park to over a million a year in the 1970s and 80s.

Now 80 years old, the quirky park with 1,000 or so colourful statues is among a number of still-standing older attractions whose popularity has waned over the past three to four decades.

These include Fort Siloso, Jurong Bird Park, Science Centre Singapore and Butterfly Park & Insect Kingdom.

At Haw Par Villa, annual visitorship has plunged to an estimated 200,000 in the past two decades. It was a million or so visitors every year in the 1970s and 1980s.

UNABLE TO COMPETE

Some of these attractions have difficulties competing with the newer attractions, and thus the investment may not yield the necessary return on investment.

NGEE ANN POLYTECHNIC'S SENIOR TOURISM LECTURER MICHAEL CHIAM

Feeling the heat from newer attractions and changing consumer habits, some of these older attractions are fighting back.

At Haw Par Villa, construction is under way to upgrade the park's infrastructure and facilities.

Tour operator Journeys, which has been managing the park since 2015, said it has held various events such as escape games, weekend flea markets, and yoga and taichi sessions to determine the type of programmes that may be successful once the park is relaunched.

The Surrender Chambers wax gallery is undergoing a revamp over at Sentosa's Fort Siloso, and admission has been free since July 2015.

It also introduced free night tours this month, where guests get to navigate tunnels under minimal lighting, as soldiers at the fort did during World War II.

Ms Tresnawati Prihadi, chairman of the Association of Singapore Attractions, said the number of attractions here has increased threefold in the past 10 years. These include theme park KidZania Singapore, National Gallery Singapore and the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

  • WHAT'S NEW AT OLDER ATTRACTIONS

  • HAW PAR VILLA

    YEAR BUILT: 1937

    ANNUAL VISITORSHIP: About 200,000

    WHAT: A 3.2ha park featuring 1,000 or so colourful sculptures and dioramas that reflect elements of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian folklore.

    WHAT'S NEW: In the works are new retail and dining outlets, as well as events such as art exhibitions and flea markets.

  • SCIENCE CENTRE

    YEAR BUILT: 1977

    ANNUAL VISITORSHIP: One million

    WHAT: Fourteen galleries comprising interactive exhibits over a wide range of topics related to science, technology and mathematics.

    WHAT'S NEW: KidsStop, a science activity area for pre-schoolers. Admission fees to the Science Centre is free for Singaporeans, permanent residents and local school groups on weekdays. Fees to enter KidsStop range from $2 to $10 for children and adults.


    BUTTERFLY PARK & INSECT KINGDOM

    YEAR BUILT: 1984

    ANNUAL VISITORSHIP: 250,000 in 2014

    WHAT IT SHOWCASES: A highlight is its outdoor conservatory, where some 1,500 live butterflies flutter about.

    WHAT'S NEW: Plans for a $6 million overhaul in 2013 were shelved after its owners decided to invest elsewhere.


    FORT SILOSO

    YEAR BUILT: Built in the 1880s. It was restored and reopened as a tourist attraction in 1975.

    ANNUAL VISITORSHIP: Close to 100,000

    WHAT IT SHOWCASES: Rich memorabilia of pre-World War II and World War II-era guns, and remains of fortified military structures and tunnels.

    WHAT'S NEW: Free entry since July 2015. Free night tours this month as part of a month-long campaign.

But the length of stay of tourists has not increased at the same rate, she said. "This year, with a rather gloomy outlook, our attractions are seeing reduced visitor numbers," Ms Prihadi added. To compound matters, Singaporeans think these attractions are dated.

Associate Professor Lim Tit Meng, chief executive of Science Centre Singapore, said: "Many people perceive the Science Centre as old and only for children."

He added: "This is partly because they remember the centre as the place they went to as kids, and partly because our current building and some very popular and iconic exhibits are indeed getting on in years."

The centre does renew its content every few years, though getting guests to realise this is a challenge, he said.

To boost visitor numbers, it launched KidsStop, a science activity space for pre-schoolers in 2014, and reduced admission fees in 2015.

Some of these older attractions have historical significance, said Ngee Ann Polytechnic's senior tourism lecturer Michael Chiam.

For example, Haw Par Villa, is the last of its kind in the world after a similar park was demolished in Hong Kong, while Fort Siloso is the sole restored coastal gun battery that formed part of "Fortress Singapore" left by the British forces.

For some of these attractions, their leases are too short to warrant a long-term investment to renew them, he said.

He added: "Some of these attractions have difficulties competing with the newer attractions, and thus the investment may not yield the necessary return on investment."

In such cases, they may just have to die a natural death.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 12, 2017, with the headline 'Oldies bite back'. Print Edition | Subscribe