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Tourism down, yet optimism abounds.

SINGAPORE Long a mecca for tourists, Singapore suffered a sharp downturn in visitors last year, but the island republic's popularity as a destination has started to recover as regional economies have rallied.

Tourist numbers dropped 13% in 1998 compared with 1997 --the first double-digit decrease in 15 years. More than 1,300 people in hotels and restaurants lost their jobs.

Among regional visitors, the biggest decrease was in the number of South Korean tourists (67%), followed by Japanese (23%) and Southeast Asians (20%). The drop-off came as no surprise to the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STB), whose chief executive, Yeo Khee Leng, attributed it to the triple whammy of the 12-week haze from forest fires in Indonesia, the regional currency crisis, and political unrest in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The Indonesians--Singapore's largest source of visitors--stopped coming and returned only in May and June, when race riots in Indonesian cities forced ethnic Chinese to flee to Singapore for safety.

Tourists from Britain, the U.S. and Germany were scared off by events in the region.

The gloom, however, is lifting: Latest figures from the STB show numbers are up in the first four months of this year compared with the same period in 1998. Revenues from tourism rose 4.1% in the first quarter to $1.25 billion. In June, 25,000 Rotarians held a three-day convention here.

Last year's slump did force the tourism industry's main players to re-examine strategies for the new millennium.

Earlier this year, some members of Parliament described theme parks Tang Dynasty, Haw Par Villa and Volcanoland as stale and outdated; Assn. of Singapore Attractions chairman Francis Phun described the criticism as a "good wake-up call."

"There's no point complaining that tourist arrivals are low," Phun says, asking operators to come up with unique activities --like the Singapore Zoo's breakfast with an orangutan to generate revenues, rather than simply rely on gate admissions. (Among attractions in the country, the Singapore Zoo has one of the highest rates of repeat visits, most from residents).

Varying opinions

One plan that has generated heated debate is STB's proposed $55 million revitalization of Chinatown. STB wants to carve Chinatown into three sectors: a historic district to record the role of early Chinese emigrants; a Greater Town (Tai Por in Cantonese), as Chinatown's traditional shopping and entertainment district is known to older Chinese Singaporeans; and a Hilltown for residential-hotel development.

STB's scheme has evoked public criticism for what is seen by some as theme park meaninglessness. Leading the critics is the Heritage Society, which argues that the redevelopment of Singapore has turned the city center into an urban residential vacuum.

"The city core was perceived as one big shopping, commercial and entertainment complex," commented sociopolitical consultant Sharon Siddique and William Lim of the Heritage Society in a paper published in May. "Even the shop houses in Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street were for retail and commercial development, not residence." Chinatown must be for residents and tourists, they say.

STB's Yeo counters that the board is "heritage-friendly." "We're not in the business of myth making, and we certainly don't want to turn Chinatown into a theme park," he told the press. He adds that STB's plan was not cast in concrete and was still being fine-tuned to take other views into account.

An STB spokesman warns that unless Chinatown is rejuvenated, "What little is left will disappear altogether in time. Many residents have moved out. Roadside vendors have disappeared. Businesses that once belonged to Chinatown are closing down and making way for new types of businesses that are able to afford the high rents."

Innovations such as a village theater and encouraging the return of street performers and minstrels will restore the area's artistic and cultural vitality, the spokesman says, adding the guiding philosophy is to preserve Chinatown's unique character and heritage.

George Yeo, who was then-minister for information and the arts, says the Chinatown debate shows Chinese Singaporeans regarded Chinatown as special, as many of them could trace part of their ancestry to the area.

Local hideaway

Sentosa--the island of theme parks linked by road, cable car and ferry to the main island--is becoming more user-friendly for Singaporeans. A long-awaited night-entry plan was introduced a year ago in May, allowing visitors to drive passenger vehicles into Sentosa from 6.30 p.m. to midnight and park at six designated areas. It was a move to draw diners to the island. Prior to the evening plan, only licensed bus services could drive across the bridge.

The night plan and lower entry prices to Sentosa have drawn large crowds of residents to the fantasy island.

The Sentosa facility most recently upgraded is Siloso Beach, which has doubled in size to about three-fourths of a mile to accommodate more people. Siloso Beach suffers from tide erosion.

The upgraded beach boasts higher water quality, soft white sand, more facilities and services, additional shade and beautiful tropical landscaping.

Siloso Beach also is where 15 tons of sand have been carted for international sand-castle builders to re-create global landmarks such as the Great Wall of China and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon during the June school holidays. The Sentosa Development Corp. hopes to make the $588,000 Sandsation an annual event.
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Title Annotation:Singapore
Author:LEE, MARY
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:9SING
Date:Jun 21, 1999
Next Article:Local B.O. boom sets high standards.

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