If it weren’t for all the masked faces on the streets, you could forget that there’s a global pandemic here in Singapore. Life post-lockdown isn’t so different from life pre-lockdown, aside from mandatory digital check-ins everywhere you go, temperature scans, and the growing number of robots dutifully scrubbing the (already!) sparkling floors of the malls.
But of course this is Singapore, a country that is famously prepared, with plans for everything from disease outbreaks to its citizens’ fitness, so you know there is more going on than meets the eye. In fact, while actual travel has come to a virtual standstill over the past few months, in this wealthy Southeast Asian city-state a kind of time travel has been quietly taking place behind the scenes—one that will transport globetrotters into the future. Singapore has spent a fortune (officials will not say exactly how much) over the past months to pioneer a slate of COVID-19 responsiveness measures that are perhaps the most rigorous in the world. The goal, says Keith Tan, CEO of the Singapore Tourism Board, is to address COVID-19’s “disruptive and lasting impact on travel behavior. These responses are intended to help Singapore rebound as quickly as possible.”
That’s vital for any destination, but especially one so reliant on tourism and its status as a global logistics and transport hub that connects 120 countries on six continents. The crown jewel of its plan is SG Clean, a program that encourages companies to meet specific hygiene and safety standards by certifying compliant venues. It applies to all kinds of businesses, from the mammoth Ngee Ann City designer shopping mall to the beloved hawker markets all over town. It includes a seven-point system of common sense mandates like keeping your spaces tidy and making sure guests aren’t sick before they settle in (hence the temperature checks), in addition to creating the new role of SG Clean Ambassador at all businesses. Once a business is up to snuff, it can display a white-and-green SG Clean sticker, similar to a Zagat rating seal.
Crucially, the impact does not feel invasive. For those of us who live here, the only palpable differences from what we’re used to are the digital check-ins to restaurants, shops, malls, offices, and even parks, which are used to facilitate contact tracing, and the temperature scans. And the latter are growing less obtrusive, with temperature guns being replaced by artificial intelligence scanners that only require you to step in front of them for a moment.
The measures are a turbocharged version of Singapore’s response during SARS, when the city rolled out a variety of nationwide actions including a mass education campaign on hygiene. Implemented in February, SG Clean was quickly imitated by a wide range of destinations: Portugal launched its Clean & Safe initiative in April, while Abu Dhabi kicked off its Go Safe certification scheme in June. Singapore businesses were quick to recognize the importance of the certification; more than 16,000 have signed up so far. “If we don’t take COVID-19 seriously and something happens, business will become unsustainable and the livelihood of our employees will be at risk,” says Frank Shen, the co-owner of modern Southeast Asian restaurant Laut, in the Central Business District. “Getting certified is extra work on our part, but it helps us protect our employees’ rice bowl and creates a safe space for customers.”
After all, most of the measures that have emerged over the past several months aren’t just COVID-19 solutions, they’re a step into the world we’ll live in after the pandemic. A walk through Changi Airport today is already a preview of the future of travel, with contactless check-in systems, traffic patrol, and hospitality robots in the Jewel retail-and-entertainment space. Meanwhile, a growing number of hotels—including the sophisticated Grand Park City Hall and the Amara group’s Singapore accommodations—have transformed the guest experience to make it not only contactless but also more efficient. Now the check-in process requires just a few taps on your mobile phone instead of a wait behind a crowded desk, an improvement that saves time and shrinks the hotel’s carbon footprint, according to Gtriip, the Singapore-based firm behind the system. Guests can also use their phone to perform tasks that usually involve touching, like turning on the lights or ordering room service. One of the less-discussed aspects of COVID-19’s impact on travel has been the way it has sped innovation that was coming anyway—so perhaps we’ll all be hanging out with robots before long.