Singapore's visitor arrivals down by about 20,000 a day amid coronavirus outbreak

Recent travel restrictions on tourists from China - the largest source market - have battered businesses that rely on them, with some reporting a drop in sales of up to half. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) is projecting a 25 to 30 per cent drop in visitor arrivals this year, as the deadly coronavirus that has killed more than 1,000 and infected more than 42,000 worldwide continues its global spread.

This estimation is steeper than the 19 per cent decline in 2003, when Singapore endured the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak.

"We believe that the situation this year will be at least as severe as Sars, and probably worse," STB chief executive Keith Tan said at its annual year-in-review on Tuesday (Feb 11).

"At this point, we estimate that every day, we lose an average of 18,000 to 20,000 international visitor arrivals to Singapore," he added.

The estimate will change depending on three main factors, Mr Tan said. They are: how long the outbreak in China will last and whether it has economic knock-on effects on the region; how long the situation in Singapore - and other countries in the region - will last; and how long it will take for traveller demand to return.

The latest projection comes on the back of yet another year of record highs in tourist arrivals and spending in 2019. But with the largest source market of China drying up, the four-year streak is set to end.

Total arrivals in 2019 rose 3.3 per cent to 19.1 million, while tourism receipts inched up 0.5 per cent to $27.1 billion, according to preliminary estimates released by the STB.

But it said in a statement on Tuesday that the tourism sector, which includes hospitality, attractions, retail, and food and beverage, will take "a significant hit" in 2020.

Arrival numbers have already started to tumble, the STB said, as Chinese tourists account for one in five visitors to the Republic. Recent travel restrictions - including a ban on outbound tour groups from China and Singapore's curb on arrivals from the mainland - have battered businesses that rely on them, with some reporting a drop in sales of up to half.

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The restrictions are aimed at limiting the spread of the virus, which originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

Visitor arrivals from other key source markets are also expected to fall this year due to lower global travel confidence, the STB said.

Singapore now has 45 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, the highest number for a country outside of China. A number of overseas cases have also been linked to a business meeting held at the Grand Hyatt Singapore in January.

Last Friday, the Republic's disease outbreak response went up a notch to orange after locally transmitted cases were established. Measures such as limiting large scale events have since been put in place.


Mr Tan said Singapore's tourism sector is facing its biggest challenge since the Sars outbreak.

"But unlike Sars, we are now better prepared and more resilient," he said.

"We see no reason for other countries to have travel advisories on Singapore - we're very confident in the measures the Government has in place to contain the cases here," said Mr Tan, who added that Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs will work with other governments on the matter.

Kuwait and Qatar are among the countries that have issued advisories urging citizens to defer non-essential travel to Singapore.

A task force comprising tourism leaders from both the private and public sectors will be formed to lay out strategies for recovery and future growth, STB said.

It has already announced that it will waive licence fees for hotels, travel agents and tourist guides as a first step, while additional support measures for the hard-hit tourism and transport sectors will be announced at this year's Budget on Feb 18.

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The Government provided a similar $230 million relief package in 2003, which included higher property tax rebates for commercial properties and gazetted tourist hotels, a reduction in foreign worker levies and a bridging loan programme for tourism-related small and medium-sized enterprises.

Visitor arrivals and spending rebounded in 2004, even outstripping pre-Sars numbers in 2002. This was credited in part to the STB's aggressive "Uniquely Singapore" campaign that helped to woo more regional tourists.

Singapore is now more reliant on tourists from China than in 2003, when they accounted for only about 9 per cent of international arrivals, said Mr Tan. Thus, the travel restrictions on Chinese tourists a have dealt a heavier blow.

He emphasised, however, that STB is not overly reliant on China as a source market, with Chinese tourists accounting for a smaller proportion of total visitors than many other countries in the region. Chinese tourists accounted for about 28 per cent of arrivals in Thailand last year, for example.

"Our portfolio has always been one-third South-east Asia, one-third North-east Asia, one-third rest of the world...and we intend to keep it that way," said Mr Tan, who added that STB is seeking to grow other markets, such as Indonesia and India, to make up for the shortfall in Chinese visitors.


It may be the year of the Rat, but things are not looking so rosy for the Mice (Meetings, incentives, conferencing, exhibitions) sector, Mr Aloysius Arlando, president of the Singapore Association of Convention and Exhibition Organisers and Suppliers joked wryly.

Several hundred events have been postponed or cancelled since last Friday, when Singapore raised its alert level, he said.

While events scheduled for the second half of the year are going on as planned for now, "we might run into the phenomenon of a bunching of events looking for inventory", said Mr Arlando, who added that the association is figuring out how best to accommodate postponed events.

Several tourism industry associations said that while their members have been hard hit by the slowdown, there have been no known business closures or layoffs yet.

Cost-cutting measures such as shorter operating hours and work weeks, however, are being put in place by some businesses as plans for government aid are worked out.

Cashflow will become a growing problem if the situation continues, industry members said.

Ms Kwee Wei-Lin, president of the Singapore Hotel Association, said that preserving jobs is a key priority as manpower is the industry's most precious asset.

No workers were let go during the Sars period, as government support helped hotels to tide over the nine months or so it took to recover, and the hope is that none will be let go during the current crisis.

"During this downtime, we're hoping to retrain staff and do repairs and renovations that we couldn't last year, when we were at over 90 per cent (occupancy)", she said.

Sentosa, which saw a dip after Singapore's first coronavirus patient was announced to have stayed at a hotel on the island, is looking to grow its base of local visitors.

Businesses on the island have reported a drop in visitorship and sales of between 20 and 50 per cent since the start of the month, said Sentosa Development Corporation's chief executive Quek Swee Kuan.

Island admission will be waived for all during the school holidays in March, and this may be extended if the situation does not improve, he said. Services and programming aimed at drawing more locals will also be implemented in time to come.

Dr Kevin Cheong, executive committee member of the Association of Singapore Attractions, agreed that getting more Singaporeans to visit tourist attractions will provide a much-needed boost.

"I think the fear factor has hit home, people are more afraid of going to crowded places...we need to encourage residents to come back," he said.


Tourism receipts for the first three quarters of 2019 were slightly below the STB's projections of a 1 to 3 per cent growth over 2018, continuing the trend of spending failing to keep pace with arrivals.

This was largely due to global economic uncertainties, more day trippers and currency fluctuations against the Singapore dollar in seven out of 10 key source markets, the STB said.

Visitors spent less on food and beverage (-5 per cent), accommodation (-7 per cent), as well as sightseeing, entertainment and gaming (-2 per cent) from January to September 2019.

Spending on shopping, however, rose by 3 per cent to $4.2 billion.

Meanwhile, the miscellaneous category - that includes airfare expenditure on Singapore-based carriers, local transportation and medical tourism - grew by 4 per cent to nearly $6 billion, the largest share of spending. It was propelled by an increase in visitors arriving on airlines based here.

Chinese tourists remained Singapore's top market in 2019, with 3.6 million visitors spending $3.2 billion here in the first three quarters. Nearly half of the spending was on shopping.

Indonesia and India remained in second and third place, respectively, for arrivals and spending. Spending by Indonesian tourists grew by 6 per cent to $2.3 billion, while visitors from India spent 9 per cent less than the same period the year before.

Nine of Singapore's top 15 source markets saw record numbers of arrivals, with the United States posting a high percentage growth (+13 per cent) as more came for leisure and business events.

There was an 8 per cent drop in visitors for business travel and meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions for the first three quarters, due to fewer events held.

Gazetted hotel room revenue went up by 5.5 per cent to $4.2 billion, while the cruise industry ended its four-year streak of double-digit year-on-year growth. Passenger traffic fell 2.5 per cent to 1.82 million, which the STB attributed to the dry docking of Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas for more than a month.

Work is progressing on large-scale projects such as the Mandai Nature Precinct and expansion of Singapore's two integrated resorts, the STB said, while the interim use of a decommissioned power station in Pasir Panjang for lifestyle events is among the plans to be completed this year.

"It is more important than ever to invest in tourism to support our businesses, build confidence in tourism, and boost our destination attractiveness - so that when things start to improve, Singapore can ride on the recovery for strong growth," said Mr Tan.

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