Sexy Singapore, two words I never thought would be used in the same sentence. But I was in Singapore for business recently and found myself coming around to the James Packer point of view – that it offers Australia some lessons in tourism, though not necessarily in life (they work too hard).

I know that for many travellers, Singapore will always be Asia-lite, the place that banned chewing gum and is efficient to the point of boring. That to an extent is still true. One read of the straight-laced Straits Times will tell you that.

Yet outside on the street there’s a lot of life. People come out to play at night – the shopping hub of Orchard Rd is packed at 10pm on a Wednesday, bars are full to over-flowing – the tropical heat working its magic on wallets and thirsts.

The joint is jumping and tourism operators are making hay. The cheapest three-star hotel sells for more than S$200 a night, while tourists pay more than three times that to stay in five-star properties such as Raffles, where the service is slow and the rates sky-high. It’s a place where there is no low season.

One hotelier  – who operates several three and four-star properties in Singapore – reckons her group of hotels will finish the year with an average 95% occupancy, an unbelievable performance and one not possible in any Australian market.

The big difference is weekend business. The Australian CBD markets may be exceptionally strong from Monday to Thursday, but are generally weak Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which means 80 per cent to 85 per cent is considered maximum occupancy Down Under.

Singapore hotels are packed seven days a week, which brings us back to Sexy Singapore and Mr Packer, who never speaks in public unless it is to make a political point to benefit his own business. In this case it was a general complaint about the state of Australian tourism when compared with Singapore.

It’s a city on his radar because the Singapore Government endorsed the construction of two enormous casinos – Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa. Also known as integrated resorts, these two gambling behemoths are now underpinning tourism in the once sedate city state.

 “They (the Australian Government) should look at Singapore as the benchmark,” he said earlier this year. “I’m not saying casinos are the only answer but Singapore has done it really well. In terms of Asian tourism casinos have become the centerpiece of what smart governments think tourism is about.”

Sad but true. Gambling is important for many of the markets from which Australia is looking to drive tourism (read China, Indonesia, India to a lesser extent), something they want to do on holiday, along with shopping, eating and the odd tourist attraction.

No doubt a good percentage of the Asian tourists like nature and the wide-open spaces that Australia offers, but the success of Singapore – visitations increased 20% last year and are up 15% for the first six months of 2011 – suggests the great outdoors pitch is a minority play.

It is man-made attractions that turn many of these tourists on. For all its attributes, no-one can dispute the fact that Singapore is physically unremarkable. It’s Asian urban, baking hot, but with excellent indoor facilities – where air conditioning is more important than a cooling ocean breeze.

Thinking about this more intently, you’d also have to say that days away is also a big factor. Consider the holiday pressure on the average Indian and Chinese. They work harder than just about anyone on earth and rarely take breaks. When they do, it is short and sweet.

Just like Australians… But there the story ends. Singapore works because it is where it is and does what it does. It also has a Government with total control, virtually no opposition, very deep pockets and – thankfully for its citizens – a sense of fairness.

Australia is very much a different beast but there are definitely lessons we can take from our northern neighbor. And it’s not gambling – but entertainment in all its different forms. Give the people what they want or they will go elsewhere. Singapore, perhaps.


This article first appeared  in The Australian newspaper.

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