Singapore is aggressively pursuing a return to travel — but not without setbacks

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With coronavirus cases rising globally leading into winter, lockdown measures have continued decimating tourism nine months into the pandemic. And while nations in Asia have overall fared better than the rest of the world in keeping their case counts low, even those hubs have struggled lately to prevent new surges that require strict quarantines and broad restrictions on travel.

But one standout place in Asia is not only keeping its coronavirus counts down as of late — it also announced a slew of new offerings for locals and some international visitors, paving the way for a potential return to travel that still prioritizes safety.

Singapore’s effort to resuscitate its tourism industry is showing other nations the setbacks that inevitably will arise with all travel efforts taking place in a pandemic, even when there is a strong focus on safety.

Beginning in January the city-state will begin taking applications for business trips shorter than two weeks. Those high-value business visitors will be limited to only stay at designated facilities for their stay, and will need to be tested before travel, upon arrival in Singapore and throughout their stay, Rachel Loh, Singapore Tourism Board’s regional director for the Americas, said in an email.

The timing of the Hong Kong travel bubble will be revisited in late December, with the tourism industry hopeful for any increase in dollars, even minimal gains.

“In the past nine months, our tourism industry has not stood still. The industry has been working hard to reimagine products and experiences,” Loh said. “We are hopeful that the introduction of visitors from Taiwan will benefit the range of tourism industries,” from hotels and guided tours to retail, restaurants and attractions.

Shoppers sit on a set of steps inside the Funan shopping mall in Singapore on Tuesday. (Wallace Woon/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Singapore’s tourism sector normally generates $20 billion per year. But as of October, only about 15 percent of its typical annual visitor count had trickled through its borders, according to Singapore Tourism Analytics Network figures. In January, the island saw 1.6 million visitors. In October, the monthly total was 13,000.

The country has seen a total of 58,353 confirmed coronavirus cases since March, with daily case counts spiking in April and August. Since Sept. 1, daily case counts have stayed minimal.

Singaporeans have also been benefiting from the framework, which has allowed some “cruises to nowhere” to bring cruise-loving locals back to sea for days-long voyages on cruise ships that sail without any ports of call — and only for a limited number of passengers who must test negative for the coronavirus before and throughout the journey.

But for all of those efforts, not everything has gone smoothly: One Royal Caribbean cruise to nowhere, on the Quantum of the Seas ship, was recently forced to turn back to port when a positive coronavirus test result came back for an elderly passenger who had fallen ill. That result was ultimately a false positive, health officials confirmed, and the man was not infected.

Chang said the incident will inform future sailings and that it proves the city-state’s emergency protocols for a limited return to cruising are effective: “The swift response by the cruise line gives us the confidence to continue our pilot for safe cruises as planned.”

A fisherman in front of Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas cruise ship on Dec. 9. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

To cap off 2020 the city-state announced it is preparing to welcome the World Economic Forum in 2021, standing in for Davos, Switzerland, as host of the global conference in May. A spokesperson for the Singapore Ministry of Trade and Industry said the details of that meeting’s protocols are not yet available but that “attendees will be required to adhere to the prevailing stringent public health requirements, and safe management and distancing measures in Singapore.”

In some ways, the city-state has successfully revived some international leisure travel. Since the local tourism industry reopened in June to allow a limited number of international arrivals, a trickle of visitors has entered from permitted areas such as China, Japan, Vietnam, Brunei and South Korea.

And while the island hopes 2021 will be different, its officials are urging patience in the recovery that will come with a vaccine.

“Yes, there will be recovery in 2021; the question is to what extent that bounce back will be,” Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s foreign affairs minister, said on CNBC.

“But it will be a fallacy, it will be very dangerous to assume we’re going to go back to business as usual.”