July 24, 2021


The travel folks

From global to local hero: The Singapore fight to stay ahead of Covid and revive travel

11 min read

SAFE bubbles; pilot events; partnerships with Klook,
Airbnb, Expedia, Trip.com; domestic vouchers – you name it, Singapore Tourism
Board is pulling out all the stops to buy time for local businesses until
borders open or a vaccine arrives

What happens when the world shuts down and your entire existence is based on an open world? Well, that’s the story of Singapore during Covid and for me, living here and running a business here, it’s been fascinating to bear witness to the rolling impact of the Covid-19 crisis on my adopted home and its response.

times it’s felt like watching a Netflix horror series in which you wonder if the
next episode could possibly get any worse and at times, it’s felt like watching
a superhero movie, cheering on the underdog as it takes on the big giants with
more superpowers than it can ever dream to possess.

Let’s face it, in a global world gone local, Singapore is truly an underdog. Unlike countries that can afford to shut themselves off from the rest of the world for a period of time, this country of under six million people living in a 727sqkm of land mass (to give context, Canada has 38 million people living across 9,984,670sqkm) absolutely needs an open world to function.

independence 55 years ago, it’s had to look outwards to build its fortunes.
From the early tea merchants to aspiring tech unicorns of today, the one thread
that unites them is the necessity to look abroad for growth and scale.

In fact, to use today’s parlance, you could say Singapore is the original hybrid state – small physical footprint but big virtual reach. For businesses based here, like WiT, Singapore has always been a springboard to the outside world. You thus have a massive problem when the outside world is closed off, to all intents and purposes.

As such, it’s been interesting for me as an observer and also as someone whose life is inextricably linked to its fortunes to watch, in particular, how the main protagonist in the unfolding drama, the Singapore Tourism Board has had to transform itself from global to local hero and how it’s been playing its role in the re-opening and revival of travel.

Here’s my take on the steps it’s taken to keep the industry alive till now, and the challenges Singapore faces in a world in which governments have lost trust in each other.

1. Creating a domestic market from almost zero

Firstly, it had to make a wholesale shift in thought and deed from outward-looking to inward-looking and it’s been pretty impressive (I will use this word a few times in this article) how the organization went from one that was set up and structured primarily to do global marketing to one that had to do domestic, almost overnight.

The $45m SingapoRediscovers campaign was the first volley. Launched late July, it’s meant to stretch over nine months which gives you an indication of the timeline the STB was expecting this crisis would last, at that time.

A month after, in late August, the government announced it would set aside $320m worth of SingapoRediscovers vouchers to incentivize Singaporeans to spend on hotels stays, attractions tickets and/or tours.  In mid-October, it selected five travel platforms to offer redemption services for the vouchers – Klook, Traveloka, Trip.com, GlobalTix and Changi Travel Services.

It’s a good and fair spread of its largesse.

Staying together to fight the crisis: The first step has been to get Singaporeans to discover the less obvious parts of home.

2. Getting things – flights, cruises, events – to open safely and responsibly

all this is going on – let’s face it, these initiatives are but to buy time for
local businesses to survive until borders open – it’s been hard at work,
working with other ministries, to restart travel on all fronts.

the first country in the world to shut borders to China back in March 24, it
has also become the first country to try and reopen borders with countries
willing to negotiate with it.

can imagine the machinery at work to make this happen – it has got to be pretty
monumental. If you were a fly on the wall, you could imagine the conversations
taking place between ministries – health preferring to play it safe (we have
been bitten once, we can’t risk it again) and trade and transportation trying
to get things moving again (if we don’t, our airport, airline, travel will
die), and so on and so forth.

But things are moving slowly but surely. The first no-restrictions travel corridor (with testing) between Singapore and Hong Kong will start on November 22, all eyes are on this route because if it works, then you can imagine similar corridors with other nearby places which have managed to control Covid infections, provided the other party is willing to tango.

With rigorous safety protocols in place, cruises have started and are selling well, and events have also started. Permitted delegate numbers have gone from 50 to 250 and it is understood that number will soon be lifted. There have been hints that Singapore will enter Phase 3 soon, a period of more relaxed restrictions, followed by even stronger hits that Phase 3 will last for a long while, like maybe a year or more.

The STB has been the primary driving force behind these openings and it is the agency that’s been entrusted with “safe and responsible” restarts. You can imagine the pressure – the weight of a nation’s hopes resting squarely on its shoulders. Never has it had to live up to its name of Singapore Tourism Board until now.

3. From Rave To TravelRevive2020 – industry rooting for its success

The biggest coup, if it pulls it off, will be TravelRevive2020, to be held November 25-26. Remember not so long ago when the STB created another event called TravelRave? Well, that’s what it has come down to – from Rave to Revive.

It will be the largest event yet to be staged, and possibly the first to have overseas delegates. It is flagged as an ITB Asia and STB initiative – but you know that the primary force behind it is the tourism board that is determined to put on an event that will “welcome 150 hosted buyers from countries across Asia” and to “provide a platform that trials safe business events as well as safe itineraries” (from this website).

Details are sketchy at this point, probably things are changing every day and last night, when I was at Marina Bay Sands for another event, I peeked into one of the ballrooms and what I saw left me gobsmacked at the heavy lifting that’s being done for this event. The reveal will take place next week.

obstacles it faces are immense – we faced similar challenges when we explored
the idea of inviting a handful of overseas speakers for our hybrid event on
October 1. It’s not what happens when they enter Singapore because you can
trust that the STB will do everything possible to facilitate entry and stay,
but it’s what happens when they return if it’s not reciprocal. Then there’s
also the matter of corporates who are simply not allowing their executives to
travel (even if it’s fully hosted). How many overseas delegates will it be able
to convince that travelling to Singapore for a physical event is necessary at
this time?

As an industry, we are rooting for its success. The machinery and the thinking the Singapore government has put into creating and executing safe bubbles for events is nothing short of impressive (that word again) and it deserves to be applauded.

So should the hard work being put in by workers on the ground to execute on the safe and responsible openings.

BestCities Global Forum, a hybrid event at Marina Bay Sands, with 40 physical delegates attending.

night, I spoke at the BestCities Global Forum, a hybrid event, again organised
by STB. It had 40 physical delegates at Marina Bay Sands, and a virtual
audience watching. The rules around safety and hygiene protocols were as strict
as when we ran our event back on October 1. But you can sense people are much
more comfortable and confident now about being with others.

Most of the physical audience of 40 association meeting planners indicated their interest in returning with hybrid events, which is a positive sign.

4. A slew of partnerships to prepare for recovery

In tandem with these moves to reopen things on the ground, STB has also been busy signing partnerships with several travel tech brands that it’s been hard to keep up with the slew of press releases.

a recap of the key ones.

Klook has done well out of the Singapore shift to domestic. On top of the $2m deal it got as part of the SingapoRediscover campaign, it is also one of the five picked to handle the voucher business. Kudos to Klook for being super aggressive and super fast in executing during these times and after this, I suspect that it would have built up such a strong household brand in Singapore that when it comes time for us to travel again, it will be a winner.

Two deals were signed in October – one with Expedia and the other with Airbnb Experiences. The former is a two-year global marketing partnership to first boost the local industry and second, to strengthen Singapore’s position as a destination of choice when international travel resumes.

Local efforts include hosting a STB-Expedia SingaporeRediscovers campaign landing page and international marketing will cover 10 markets – Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates, Germany, France, Switzerland, Canada, United Kingdom and United States.

partnership with Airbnb “will jointly drive quality travel experiences in
Singapore, as well as encourage Singapore tourism industry players to
digitalise and pivot towards innovative hybrid business models”. A new
Singapore Virtual Trips destination page will be featured on the Airbnb platform.

And this week, it announced a three-year MOU with Trip.com Group to jointly market Singapore as the destination of choice and to enhance visitors’ experience in Singapore. As part of the agreement, the Chinese OTA has set up its international headquarters in the city – a good public relations boost for Singapore but really, in today’s world of remote work, the label of international headquarters needs to be rethought. But that’s another challenge for another day for this underdog superhero.

STB chief executive Keith Tan (left) and assistant chief executive (international group) Chang Chee Pey at the signing of the MoU with Trip.com Group

these partnerships, you can say the STB is trying to cover all its bases. China
is leading travel recovery by several giant miles and it could well be the
saviour of Singapore’s inbound tourism when borders open up, so a partnership
with the Chinese travel giant makes sense. Indeed, it’s understood that some
venues are getting enquiries from China from next June onwards, which is a
positive sign of the return of confidence.

With its Expedia and Airbnb partnerships, it’s protecting its global interests and with Klook, it is keeping in with the young and independent segment in Asia.

5. Mission Critical – stay alive until governments trust each other again for airlines to fly

Meanwhile, what travel industry businesses in Singapore have to do is survive for as long as possible until inbound tourism returns. And every business which is still alive and which I have spoken to has certainly not remained idle. This week, I was out on Sentosa, my most-visited destination in the last month, and dropped in on the FOC restaurant that’s created a studio for live streaming events on its premises. Bursts of creativity are being seen by businesses in their quest to survive and adapt.

FOC on Sentosa has created a studio for live streaming events on its premises, an example of what local businesses are doing to adapt.

reality is – we must accept the fact that inbound tourism will not be returning
at any meaningful level for the foreseeable future and prepare for that.
Because even if Singapore is willing to open its borders, there are few
governments willing to reciprocate at the same level.

with the Hong Kong-Singapore bubble, concessions had to be made – Hong Kong
requires two tests (on departure and on arrival) while Singapore requires only
one test (on departure from Hong Kong). And it’s not open to all residents in
Singapore (work pass holders are excluded) while it’s open to all residents of
Hong Kong.

Listening to a CAPA Aviation panel featuring Jeff Shane, the newly-retired general counsel of IATA, and Eammon Brennan, director general of EUROCONTROL, I wasn’t sure whether I should just slit my wrists because the picture both veterans painted about aviation was so dire and gloomy.

The long and short of it is, aviation in Europe is a mess with 4.8 million flights lost since March 1 and as of October 13, traffic was at 40.1% of 2019 and is declining rapidly as a second wave of the virus hits the continent.

Brennan called it a “meltdown” and I believe he used the word “catastrophe” as much as I used the word “impressive”. Shane and Brennan, who recalled aviation in the 1930s when the world had to pick itself up after the world war, said governments had lost trust in each other. The whole idea of international aviation is built on a system of trust – that governments trust each other – and that has been lost with this virus.

What Brennan couldn’t get over is the fact that “it’s a single virus” and “we cannot come up with a single protocol, single test” when the EU had solved things like a single market and a single currency. Both executives said the virus had been politicised and politicians, as well as bodies like WHO and ICAO, were responding to media and not the single problem they were supposed to be tackling.

With every word they uttered my hopes sank, but then it lifted again when Brennan and Shane challenged Peter Harbison, chairman emeritus of CAPA, to a pint of Guinness – they both took a bet that international longhaul corporate travel will return to its former glorious level by 2024 because they believe “you cannot solve the world economy on Zoom”.

For our sake, I hope Harbison loses.

“Nothing proves the value of air transport more convincingly than the absence of it.”

Taking a quote made during the Chicago Convention in 1944 when the Convention on International Aviation was drafted, Shane said, “Nothing proves the value of air transport more convincingly than the absence of it.” Well, we are certainly feeling it in 2020.

we must continue to fight the battles we can on the ground while the
powers-that-are-dithering figure out how to get us back in the air. Some of
course have more ground than others, some have less, like Singapore.  

But every inch of ground is worth fighting for even if it’s only 727sqkm.

Featured image credit: Noppanun Lerdwattanapaisan/Getty Images

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