SINGAPORE: On a recent staycation, I visited the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s City Gallery, as part of my hotel’s free walking tour of the precinct.
Reluctantly, I might add, as the outing had begun to feel too much like a school excursion at that point. But not wanting to appear like a spoilsport, I tagged along nevertheless.
In a plot twist, I was almost immediately proven wrong. I was enthralled by an exhibit that showcased the conceptual masterplan for Marina Bay that the country had commissioned renowned architect I M Pei to come up with in the 1980s.
What was particularly fascinating was how key elements of Pei’s plan, which included the waterfront promenade and the creation of spaces for landmark developments (the ArtScience Museum stands at one of these sites today) have become the reality that we live in today.
REDISCOVERING MY CITY
I can say with certainty that I would have not discovered this cool factoid about Singapore if the pandemic had not grounded me on this island for an entire year.
Knowing me, I probably would have never gone to the City Gallery on my own volition, if life had continued at its previous hectic pace.
But there is no denying that a year into widespread travel restrictions, a certain amount of cabin fever has set in.
Still, I am glad for this opportunity to explore the little red dot because otherwise, I may not have ever learnt how we are living and working in an architectural masterpiece that took decades to turn into reality.
READ: Commentary: No travel plans these school holidays, but that’s ok
My little walkabout around the central business district and Chinatown also left me wondering – where are all the local tourists?
During that two hours we were out and about, we only encountered a couple of other groups doing similar walking tours in an area, which happens to be one of Singapore’s most historically and culturally significant precincts.
The dearth of local explorers was even more confusing especially because every citizen has been issued with S$100 worth of SingapoRediscovers vouchers to be used on attractions, hotels and tours by June.
SOME ATTRACTIONS SEEM LACKLUSTRE
However, according to the most recent update, only about 530,000 Singaporeans have used their vouchers, with more than three-quarters of the S$320 million credits remaining unused as of Mar 1.
Even now, with just three months left to use the vouchers, it appears that many people I know have not even started making the most of this incentive, short of having a vague plan to eventually use the S$100 to offset a hotel staycation where they can hibernate or go on a cruise.
READ: Commentary: I used to think a staycation was a poor alternative for being overseas. Then I took one
As for taking the time to go on tours or visit attractions – many are not even considering it, unless they have children they need to keep entertained.
Some of the most common reasons (or excuses) for being so slow to redeem their vouchers include wanting to avoid attractions overrun with families with children, that they have not yet found something they would like to do or simply because they think Singapore is boring.
To be fair, there is a grain of truth in these critiques. Not every attraction in Singapore is necessarily inspiring, even when one is bored to the point of tears.
When I looked through the list of SingapoRediscover Voucher redeemable attractions, they could be broadly categorised into two categories.
First, the usual blockbuster suspects like the zoo, River Safari or SEA Aquarium which we all already know about. Second, attractions that seem kind of contrived or appeal to rather niche interests like virtual reality experiences, NERF battles or bungee jumps.
Honestly, they do not exactly give rise to the Eureka moment that makes one want to rush out and visit these places pronto.
READ: Commentary: Don’t need a survey to judge if Singapore is exciting
TRAVEL A STATE OF MIND
But as many of Singapore’s seasoned globetrotters will attest to, travel is not just about going to a physical place but a state of mind.
We might not be able to leave Singapore’s borders for leisure right now. But there is no reason why we cannot bring that sense of adventure into our explorations of this little red dot.
After all, the alternatives of sitting around at home or having brunch with friends seem to be options we have put on repeat this entire year and a break from this routine is a welcome comfort.
Even if an immediate interest to visit some places don’t strike you, surely the thought of supporting local businesses and fellow Singaporeans and doing a bit of good should be enough to get us out and about.
READ: Hotels, attractions gearing up for launch of SingapoRediscovers vouchers, platforms expect surge in bookings
Before international travel resumes, this could be a great opportunity to enjoy the country’s most famous destinations like Gardens by the Bay or Resorts World Sentosa, which are normally overcrowded with tourists.
Perhaps some locals may feel that these places are clichés because we just keep seeing them on Instagram or in the movies, but sometimes being in a place in person can make you feel differently about it.
After all, we have dutifully visited the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Statue of Liberty in New York City just to get that money shot, so why not allow our own country the same courtesy?
As for those who have been to these “Top 10 Places to Visit in Singapore” before, perhaps this is your chance to rekindle some of that magic of your earlier visits. Maybe that was where you went on your first date or a place that totally wowed your child on a previous family outing.
READ: Commentary: Of all places, Singaporeans miss that trip to JB most – and not just because of the food
UNCOVERING THE LESSER KNOWN
Personally, I am most curious about hunting down off-the-beaten-track experiences that reveal a previously unknown aspect of Singapore.
For instance, I never imagined that the staycay-provided walking tour in Chinatown, an area I am super familiar with, would have kept me engaged.
But just by slowing down to admire iconic buildings in the district, like the Sri Mariamman Temple and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, like I would if I were a tourist, I had a newfound sense of appreciation for the multicultural harmony that is our everyday reality.
READ: Commentary: What the Singapore tourism vouchers are really about
That has inspired me to take a closer look at the lists of SingapoRediscover Voucher-redeemable experiences, where there are some lesser-known but promising activities, like a bumboat trip to learn about Singapore’s vanishing tribes and kelongs or a street art and spray painting session in Kampong Glam.
Or you could choose to turn a voucher-subsidised hotel staycation into a real holiday by signing up for indie activities, like a fishing or diving expedition, a socially conscious tour of colourful Geylang or even a Dark Tourist-worthy Creepy Tales of Singapore trip around the island.
In fact, this research is giving me lots of ideas. I think for my next “vacation”, I am going to do the equivalent of travelling to the end of the world (as current travel limits allow) by booking myself a staycation in Changi or Pasir Ris.
Then, I am going to explore that precinct the same way I would when I travel to a different country – by eating local, wandering around the neighbourhoods on foot and visiting nearby attractions.
See you later people, I’ll be right back.
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Karen is a freelance lifestyle and travel journalist, and a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York City.