Casinos or culture? Singapore seeks tourists

POSTED: 0759 GMT (1559 HKT), June 2, 2007

SINGAPORE (Reuters) -- What makes a successful tourist destination? Casinos, theme parks, and Bollywood films -- or a mix of historic sites and local culture?

As Singapore reduces its dependence on electronics exports it wants to boost its tourism industry -- currently about 5 percent of gross domestic product -- and is betting on casinos and other imported entertainment to lure millions more visitors.

"Artificial tourist creations can work," said Tony Wheeler, co-founder of the Lonely Planet guides.

"Disneylands all over the world seem to pull in the crowds. And the casinos, given the propensity for the Chinese to gamble, will probably be a success."

Perhaps Singapore's biggest handicap is its lack of famous sights: it has no Angkor Wat or Taj Mahal. For many years, it prided itself on its innumerable shopping malls, and promoted its annual "Singapore Sale".

Abroad, it is often better known for its authoritarian ways -- it canes vandals, executes drug offenders, crushes political opposition, and bans the sale of chewing gum. Culturally, its development has been crippled by restrictions on freedom of expression and censorship of films and plays.

But with an eye on the newly affluent Chinese, Indians and other Asians who increasingly travel overseas, Singapore has begun work on several new attractions, including two big casinos, a Universal Studios theme park, and a ferris wheel, even though none of these is particularly Singaporean.

Bollywood blockbusters

In a bid to generate more "buzz" abroad, it has opened clubs such as Ministry of Sound and is even pitching itself as a film location, eager to emulate New Zealand's success with hits such as Lord of the Rings. By "starring" in Bollywood blockbusters such as Krrish, Singapore hopes to entice more Indian tourists.

Earlier this month, Singapore snagged the rights to host Formula One racing, which it hopes will raise its profile abroad. Citigroup expects the race to generate S$150-200 million a year.

"They want to send a message that Singapore has changed," said Christopher Wood, CLSA's regional strategist.

"They have to have more than shopping centers. Formula One is a brilliant idea. But nobody in Asia does culture well. Japan is the only place in Asia that has it. There's nothing cultural happening here now, zero."

The government wants to double the number of visitors to 17 million a year by 2015, while nearly trebling tourism receipts to S$30 billion. Its new attractions could well succeed in pulling the crowds, economists say, particularly given Macau's experience.

After the former Portuguese enclave of Macau opened up to the big U.S. casino firms, it proved so popular that its annual gambling revenues hit US$7 billion last year.

Macau had a record 22 million visitors last year, up 17 percent from 2005, and could have as many as 35-40 million a year by 2010, Goldman Sachs said in a research report this month.

Inspired by Macau, Singapore scrapped its decades-long ban on casinos and is now building two gambling resorts, due to open in the next three or four years, at a cost of nearly $7 billion.

One of those casinos will include a Universal Studios theme park. That too could attract millions of visitors from the region, given that the one in Japan had 8.7 million visitors in the year ending March 31, up 4.6 percent from a year ago.

Sleepy backwater

But some Singaporeans have their doubts.

"The Formula One is a lazy way to get cheap publicity," wrote Ng Weng Hoong in a letter to Business Times, as the government's money would be better spent promoting the use of solar energy.

"Singapore should not be hypocritical, pretending to care for energy savings and the environment -- and then coming up with a wasteful, has-been event like the F1."

Thousands of Singaporeans signed a petition objecting to the casinos, citing fears about the social impact and risk of crime.

"It's wrong to think that by putting up a casino that will attract tourists. It will attract a niche market - gamblers," said Hans Hoefer, who founded the Insight Guides. "I haven't seen a tourist in Las Vegas, I've only seen gamblers."

Paul Theroux, the novelist and travel writer, once wrote that it was Singapore's image as "a hot, sleepy backwater, full of colonial relics, crumbling houses, and old habits" that lured him to the city-state in the late 1960s.

"They're burying the old Singapore. It will be gone soon," he lamented in his book My Other Life. While Theroux portrayed the city-port's raffish side with its pimps and prostitutes and seedy nightclubs in his novel Saint Jack, much of that was torn down or scrubbed clean in Singapore's frantic rush to modernize.

Bugis Street, once the haunt of transsexuals, is now lined by unremarkable, could-be-anywhere shopping malls, while many of the old shop houses in Chinatown were demolished to make room for modern office blocks and apartment blocks.

While westerners and writers such as Theroux want history and culture, Chinese and Indians see Singapore as a beacon of modernity and efficient infrastructure, in stark contrast to many of Asia's chaotic cities, says tour guide Geraldene Lowe.

"All they want to see is a modern city," said Lowe, whose walking tours take in Singapore's historic quarters and craftsmen such as those who make wood carvings for the temples, or paper statues for traditional Chinese funerals.

"The government builds these ferris wheels and (gambling) resorts that you can get anywhere. Why not promote the culture we do have?" said Lowe.