Challenges and opportunities as Singapore targets becoming a sustainable tourism destination

SINGAPORE: While Singapore will face challenges as it tries to become a sustainable tourism destination,…

SINGAPORE: While Singapore will face challenges as it tries to become a sustainable tourism destination, industry players and experts are confident that it can meet such a target.

Speaking to CNA, Mr Christopher Khoo, the managing director for international tourism consultancy Masterconsult Services, said the move would be the “responsible” thing to do.

“I applaud Singapore’s decision to embrace this whole concept of sustainability in tourism, because that’s I think not only the right way to go, it is the responsible thing to do,” he said.

The move is one of the 2030 targets under the green economy – one of the five key pillars in the Singapore Green Plan unveiled earlier this year.

“Ten years from now, we also expect that global tourism will have sprung back into a more vibrant sector. Tourists will have a greater interest in sustainable travel options, for example, eco-friendly hotels and attractions,” said Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing in his speech in Parliament during the Joint Segment on Sustainability last month.

“To prepare ourselves for these opportunities, we are transforming Sentosa into a carbon-neutral destination by 2030. Through such efforts, we will strengthen Singapore as an exemplary sustainable tourism destination,” he said.

Said Mr Khoo: “On the whole, sustainable tourism is something that is becoming increasingly important. In tourism, it’s not something new … Sustainability has become more and more important, people are recognising the need to be responsible.”

According to the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), there were also 19.1 million visitors to Singapore in 2019, with these visitors spending a total of S$27.1 billion in tourism receipts.

READ: Shifts in technology, sustainability present opportunities for tourism sector in the long run: Chan Chun Sing

As defined by the World Tourism Organisation (UNTWO), sustainable tourism should incorporate three main objectives.

These include making “optimal use” of environmental resources as well as helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity. In addition, this form of tourism should also respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, said UNTWO on its website.

It also needs to ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are “fairly distributed”.

Noting that achieving sustainable tourism is a “continuous process”, tourism expert Shirley Tee said that such a destination should also include “curated meaningful experiences” that allow a tourist to understand and be aware of sustainability issues within the community, as well as incorporate activities that promote the destination country’s economy

“Efforts to protect and preserve our economic real estate can also be tied in with our journey towards being a sustainable tourism destination. For instance, ensuring that built-up areas with older buildings and our unique heritage be retained and not discarded due to economic pressure will help us preserve the social and urban fabric of the nation,” added Ms Tee, who is a senior manager at Nanyang Polytechnic’s (NYP) School of Business Management. 

“This also creates additional sustainable tourism avenues for tourists to visit, and learn more about.”

MORE DISCERNING TRAVELLERS

Mr Khoo noted that travellers have now become “more discerning” in their choice of service providers in the country they visit. One of the ways in which they do this is to look for sustainably sourced products or products sourced locally.

READ: Green Plan seeks to create new jobs, make use of sustainability as ‘competitive advantage’ for Singapore

“As more travellers are aware of the importance of sustainability, they will look out for products that are eco-friendly and purchase from businesses that embrace sustainability.  Singapore as a destination cannot ignore sustainability and it makes business sense to embrace it,” said Ngee Ann Polytechnic senior lecturer in tourism Michael Chiam.

“Many Singapore tourism-related businesses are already embracing the sustainable initiatives. What businesses can do is to dive deeper into adopting more and more sustainable processes in their businesses.”

Dr Kevin Cheong, who is chairman of the Association of Singapore Attractions, said local attractions can start with simple things, such as questioning whether brochures or tickets are necessary.
 
“At the same time not just the existing attractions but the new attractions coming on stream, they should start building their attractions in a conscious manner, in that deliberate manner. Design for sustainability,” he added.

Last month, Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) announced the resort island would be transformed into a carbon-neutral destination by 2030. This would be a “key goal” in its long-term sustainability plan, it said.

“It is possible for Sentosa to lead the way in reducing its carbon emissions and trialling new solutions, given the unique island environment and SDC being a single precinct operator working hand in hand with the community on Sentosa,” it said in a press release.

“SDC will identify and work with technology partners to testbed sustainable technologies and concepts on Sentosa, while also bringing on board some 200 businesses within Sentosa to work towards the aspiration of island carbon neutrality.”

Ms Kwee Wei-Lin, who is the president of the Singapore Hotel Association (SHA), said that to “safeguard” the future of the hotel industry, sustainability is the key to long term success. 

Ways in which hotels can and have chipped in to do their part include providing recycling bins in guest rooms, filtered water taps in guest rooms instead of plastic bottled water, as well as a paperless check-in and check-out process, she said.

“Greening the supply chain is also an important part of our journey towards sustainable tourism,” Ms Kwee said.

“Hotels can work with vendors to use environmentally-friendly packaging materials, request for suppliers to minimise packaging for their deliveries, provide eco-friendly products, which could range from office supplies to furniture and paints to cleaning products, as well as to source from sustainable food sources.”

kites over marina bay sands

File photo of kites flying near the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

In addition, SHA has also established the Hotel Sustainability Committee (HSC) which comprise both private and public sector representatives, who will “conceptualise solutions and strategies that bring together sustainability and commercial value”, she added.

At the same time, Mr Khoo noted that Singapore would also need to hold itself up to a particular set of standards as it tries to achieve its goal. 

“Different countries have got different accreditation schemes … These accreditation schemes are usually very specific to regions or destinations,” he said.
 
While Singapore may not be “specific” enough for such a tailored scheme, these schemes are very important in the area of sustainability, he added.
 
“Because you cannot just say, I want to do well, you should measure yourself against a standard.”

“There is still a lack of awareness and wide adoption of sustainable practices. While there is a blueprint, there is no clear assimilation for the hospitality and tourism organisations on the dos and don’ts,” said Ms Tee.

“What we need now is targeted initiatives to increase the understanding of sustainable practices and clear guidelines for execution.”

At STB’s annual industry conference last week, its chief executive Keith Tan said that it would be approaching industry players over the coming months to share its thoughts on developing strategies and a roadmap for destination sustainability.

READ: More than 18,200 people visited Singapore through unilateral border openings; 70% from China

“Ultimately, we don’t just want to be known as a sustainable destination, but as a great location for companies to test bed sustainable tourism solutions,” Mr Tan had said, citing examples such as a net zero-carbon hotel or entertainment event.

A LOT OF ‘PLUSES’

At the STB conference, Mr Chan said that Singapore’s tourism sector will also have to capture opportunities in the shift towards sustainability.

While Singapore might not be able to compete with other “eco-destinations” given its land scarcity and lack of natural landscapes, the country’s value proposition comes from “the intangibles”, he said.

“We want to be the best place to test bed sustainable solutions, new products and new experiences, enabling businesses from around the world to launch first-to-market solutions and innovations, right here in Singapore,” said Mr Chan.

Mr Khoo noted that Singapore has a number of “pluses” which it can use to its advantage, even though it is not typically seen as a nature destination.
 
“Being clean and green is a big advantage. We’ve always had that. And then we’ve got the advantage of having four superb nature parks … We do have a very soft side, and that in the part is actually going to be pushed a little bit more when the Mandai area is further developed,” he added.
 
“So we’ve got a very balanced product in that sense, in terms of saying that we are also sustainable.”
 
Dr Chiam noted that Singapore is not new to the area of sustainability.

“We have hosted many world-renowned sustainability events such as World Cities Summit, Singapore International Water Day and Singapore International Energy Week … This makes Singapore a sustainable destination from the MICE perspective,” he said.

“The challenge is how to translate this knowledge to something easily adopted by local businesses. The Singapore Green Plan 2030 is a good vehicle to drive awareness among local businesses on the importance of embracing the sustainability movement.” 

Dr Chiam also noted that there are a number of “success stories” when it comes to sustainability among businesses in the tourism industry.

Visitors feed a giraffe in an enclosure at the Singapore Zoo

Visitors feed a giraffe at the Singapore Zoo on its first day of reopening to the public after the attraction was temporarily closed due to concerns about COVID-19, Jul 6, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

“These stories can act as a catalyst to inspire other businesses to join the sustainability movement,” he added.  

FACING UP TO COSTS 

At the same time, associated costs could be an issue as Singapore strives to achieve this goal, said experts.
 
“I think cost or managing costs will always be an issue, as Singapore looks to implement different standards, for instance, it will just mean that our businesses have to adhere to something that in the future will become more important,” said Mr Khoo.
 
He noted that given how the COVID-19 pandemic has brought travel to a halt, now would be an opportune time to implement some changes.

“Everybody’s minds are very malleable, we’re in a very plastic situation, you set us in the right direction, it will stand us in good stead 10, 20 years from now,” he explained
 
NYP’s Ms Tee noted that the S$68.5 million that the Government will pump into the Tourism Development Fund for businesses looking to test-bed sustainable tourism offerings is a “good sign” that Singapore is moving in the right direction.
 
At the same time, Dr Cheong pointed out that attraction operators would need help from the Government even as they seek to become more sustainable in the way they operate.
 
“(Cost) is where we hope the Government can give us a leg up,” he said. 
 
“COVID-19 has hit us deep in the core, our financial core. Many smaller attractions, SME (small- and medium-size enterprises) attractions may not have the financial appetite … But I think if we do it collectively, in a single-minded manner, with government support, I think we can make a difference.”