VTLs important milestone for S'pore, but no major recovery in inbound tourism expected yet

The recovery of international travel around the world, especially longer-haul travel, will be gradual.
The recovery of international travel around the world, especially longer-haul travel, will be gradual.ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - It is unlikely that Singapore will see a major uptick in inbound tourism in the near future despite the launch of Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTLs) for travellers from 11 countries.

This is because the recovery of international travel around the world, especially longer-haul travel, will be gradual, said the Singapore Tourism Board (STB).

STB chief executive Keith Tan told The Straits Times that the launch of the VTLs nevertheless marks an important milestone.

"Over time, as travellers become more accustomed to the new requirements and as processes become more streamlined, such as the mutual recognition of vaccination certificates, we expect travel volume to pick up and for vaccinated travel to become more of the norm," said Mr Tan.

The VTLs let vaccinated travellers enter Singapore without having to serve stay-home notices. Instead, they will take a Covid-19 swab test before departure and after arrival in Singapore.

The Republic has started 10 VTLs so far - for travellers from Germany, Brunei, the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Canada and France.

As all of these countries - except Brunei - have opened up to those coming from Singapore, travellers can fly between the countries without having to quarantine on either side.

Singapore and South Korea will also jointly start VTLs on Nov 15.

While the launch of the VTLs has been celebrated by expatriates and travel-starved Singaporeans, experts and industry observers have said that this is unlikely to provide much of a boost to inbound tourism.

The Singapore Hotel Association (SHA), which represents 160 member hotels in Singapore, said travellers from the 11 VTL countries made up less than 20 per cent of total visitor arrivals in 2019.

The largest sources of tourist arrivals then were China, Indonesia, India, Malaysia and Australia.

Ms Kwee Wei-Lin, president of the SHA, said the VTLs are encouraging, but will not alleviate its members' financial challenges.

She added: "Since most of the VTLs require long haul travel, it will take some time for international visitors to rediscover Singapore.

"For a truly memorable holiday in Singapore, our public health protocols will need to return to pre-pandemic standards so that travellers can enjoy authentic local experiences without restrictions."

German journalist Andreas Spaeth, 55, who visited Singapore for a media trip in September, said it will not be easy for holidaymakers to enjoy their experience here under current conditions.

"The need to wear masks in the humid heat outdoors is unpleasant, we never had this rule in Germany," he said.

He also cited other issues such as the need to have constant access to mobile data to use TraceTogether, and the administrative work needed to enter under the VTL.

Experts and industry players noted that closed borders regionally will hamper Singapore.

Mr Ong Hanjie, a director at travel agency EU Holidays, said 19 out of 20 tour groups would visit at least one other country besides Singapore before Covid-19 struck.

Many guests would visit Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia in addition to Singapore, spending two to three days in each country. Another popular route among South Korean and Japanese tourists was to fly from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh city.

Other attractions that Singapore boasted in the past have also been blunted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The nightlife scene is now non-existent, with alcohol sales having to stop at 10.30pm.

Mr Nasen Thiagarajan, vice-president of the Singapore Nightlife Business Association, said Clarke Quay is now a far cry from the bustling place it used to be.

He added: "As a tourist, if you tell me that after 10.30pm I can't do anything, what am I going to do? I don't think people are coming here to watch a midnight movie."

Clarke Quay is now a far cry from the bustling place it used to be. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

The fly-cruise market, in which people fly in for cruises from Singapore, has also been completely decimated. The two cruise ships operating out of Singapore currently cater only to Singapore residents.

Mr Michael Goh, president of Dream Cruises and head of international sales at Genting Cruise Lines, said Dream Cruises had a steadily growing number of fly-cruise travellers from more than 30 countries who contributed to 70 per cent of its capacity before the pandemic.

Both Dream Cruises and the other operator, Royal Caribbean International, said they are working with the authorities to look into the possibility of allowing tourists to participate in cruises again.

But a silver lining has emerged with more Singapore residents joining their cruises in the past year.

Mr Goh said: "We are also observing a rise in new demographic segments from expats, Muslim travellers, couples with no children or non-school-going young children families as well."

A silver lining has emerged with more Singapore residents joining their cruises in the past year. PHOTO: ST FILE

Royal Caribbean International's vice-president and managing director for Asia-Pacific Angie Stephen said it has set sights on the resumption of cruises to other countries, with a new ship set to set sail in October next year.

Despite the current restrictions, however, experts noted that some will find assurance in Singapore's ability to set and enforce Covid-19 regulations, as well as its reputable healthcare facilities. Hotels, too, maintain a high standard of cleanliness and hygiene measures.

Mr Eugene Pang, course manager of diploma in hospitality and tourism management at Nanyang Polytechnic's School of Business Management, said: "In this current climate, I believe that all visitors, regardless of their purpose of visit, are likely to rank safety and hygiene as the most important factor."

STB's Mr Tan acknowledged the challenges posed by closed borders regionally as well as the domestic Covid-19 restrictions. But he said these are near-term responses to Covid-19, not permanent.

"As Singapore progressively reopens and relaxes these restrictions, we are confident that Singapore will regain its longstanding destination appeal," he said.