The tourism industry must be prepared for a long winter as international travel could take three to five years to return to pre-pandemic levels, even if a vaccine for the coronavirus is developed soon.
But businesses cannot go into hibernation mode if Singapore is to come roaring back as a top destination for high-value tourists when the situation begins to normalise.
This was the stark message from Singapore Tourism Board's (STB) chief executive Keith Tan to industry members at a virtual roundtable session yesterday.
Echoing the bleak outlook, Association of Singapore Attractions (ASA) chairman Kevin Cheong urged operators that are barely hanging on to cut their losses.
"If you think the light at the end of the tunnel is around the corner, this is not a corner. It is a huge turnpike," said Dr Cheong.
Mr Tan said the Government will do its best to aid the industry, such as by stimulating local demand. He also urged firms to develop offerings that can help differentiate Singapore as a travel destination, saying that support will be available to sustain these capabilities.
"We need to be prepared for travellers who are looking for more exclusive, smaller-scale or special experiences that are hard to find elsewhere because we believe that in the years after Covid-19, people will not be travelling so frequently," he said.
Businesses will have to be creative in coming up with new revenue streams in the interim, and some may have to reposition or pivot their business to survive, he noted.
During the two-hour session, industry leaders across sectors such as hotels, retail and attractions spoke about the challenges they face amid the tourist drought and safe distancing restrictions, as well as the need to collaborate and to improve service levels.
Sustained border closures have put the hotel industry here in a "critical financial crisis" as international tourism contributes to about 90 per cent of revenue, said Ms Margaret Heng, executive director of the Singapore Hotel Association.
While the pandemic has hastened the adoption of contactless guest touchpoints and online shopping, the personal touch will remain key for the hospitality and retail industries, panellists said.
Better service in stores is also needed if retailers are to give shoppers incentive to visit bricks-and-mortar outlets, said Singapore Retailers Association executive director Rose Tong. "If a shopper steps into the store and is not well treated and not served, then they might as well shop online," she said.
Retail staff should thus be trained in conversational and soft skills to better engage customers, Ms Tong said.
And when it comes to visiting leisure attractions at home, locals tend to be lethargic, but they are generally willing to pay more while overseas, said ASA's Dr Cheong.
Operators will have to better study and cater to the local market to convince Singaporeans to spend on ticketed activities here, he said.
"We need to develop our own unique content, own local stories and really pull at the heartstrings of our guests."
When international travel does resume, travel agents may see a resurgence, with holidaymakers seeking guidance on country requirements and more structured itineraries, said Mr Steven Ler, president of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore.
There is also scope for cross-sector collaboration, he said, adding: "People whom you never thought are possible to work with will potentially be your strength to differentiate your product."
Meanwhile, Orchard Road Business Association (Orba) chairman Mark Shaw said capacity limits have made survival a struggle for businesses designed for much larger crowds at Singapore's premier shopping belt.
But the pandemic presents a good opportunity for Orchard Road to better utilise its street space, he said.
"We really do need to all pull together to make sure that businesses survive, even as we retool and as we rethink how we do our business," he said.
This year's Orchard Road Christmas light-up will go ahead with scaled-down activities in the light of safe distancing regulations, Orba said yesterday. More details are expected early next month.