16 months into the pandemic, travel agents in Singapore have proven their resilience, ready to adapt and make creative shifts to stay afloat.
• Government initiatives including the Singapore Rediscovers Vouchers programme help support local tour operators and stimulate domestic demand
• Some institutions have rapidly turned to new business models to boost revenue during travel hiatus
• Cruise sales also help boost agency revenue
The numbers look good: from February 2020 to the end of May 2021, 137 travel agencies (TAs) in Singapore ceased operations. However, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) said only 38 TAs mentioned the epidemic. The rest gave other reasons, such as a change in business focus and/or founder retirement, especially for smaller institutions. About 120 to 140 TAs quit voluntarily each year.
The STB’s website lists 1,122 travel agents as “active”, meaning they are licensed. But many may be dormant or downsized. The closed storefronts on Beach Road and Chinatown indicate that coach and regional travel agencies and ticketing agencies have been severely affected.
More than 80% of the National Association of Travel Agents in Singapore (NATAS), which represents about a quarter of TAs, have renewed their membership despite Covid-19 severely impacting all tourism sectors.
“We won’t see strong signs of a recovery in travel for some time,” admitted NATAS president Steven Ler. “The next six to nine months will be critical as any further delays in border reopenings will be Harmful. There is no single standard or protocol for travel, which adds to the complexity of cross-border travel arrangements as restrictions are gradually eased.”
He advocates for government and industry to work together to redefine travel and create a more sustainable and resilient industry. “NATAS is working with government agencies on many fronts to align efforts to prepare the industry for a recovery.”
the art of adaptation
The challenges posed by the pandemic have shown that continuous adaptation is a key strategy for survival. With the help of government support, travel agents in Singapore have proven resilient, adapting and constantly evolving their product portfolio to suit local tastes.
Kenneth Lim, Director of Travel Agencies and Tour Guides at STB, said: “Overall, our travel industry has remained resilient and adapted their business models and products. Travel agencies must ensure they have the relevant skills to meet the changing needs and preferences of consumers To this end, STB has launched various initiatives to ensure our tourism industry is ready for the future of tourism.”
In fact, the TAs surveyed expressed gratitude for the government’s generous wage subsidy and training grants, fee discounts and Singapore Rediscovery Voucher (SRV). To keep costs down, some have relocated offices; others have freed up redundant staff to carry out their duties as ambassadors of safe distancing.
Participating TAs appreciated the SRV program. Yvonne Low, executive director of The Traveler DMC, said the team used their skills in catering to international tourists to source and launch Origin Journeys in Singapore – enriching the experience for participants of all ages.
She said: “The three most popular tours are the True Blue Peranakan Experience, co-hosted with a Peranakan restaurant; Pulau Ubin, which includes Chek Java; and Hainan Heritage Tour, which includes food at the Raffles Hotel Workshops, tea tastings and Singapore Slings. Food-related travel is more about culture: interacting with restaurateurs who openly share their culture, community and love for a particular cuisine.”
Marshall Ooi, Director of Nam Ho Travel, said: “Singaporeans are now exploring remote locations such as Pulau Ubin and Kranji, and enjoying novelties such as Singapore River Cruises and delicious seafood dinners. Experiences are key, boosting their experience through interactive storytelling. Discover and enjoy.”
Tour East Singapore has also adapted tour itineraries to suit local customers. Non-citizens do not receive SRV subsidies, so they book on Eventbrite. General Manager Dominic Ong said: “We have around 120 clients a month, with at least two more. Of our eight trips – mostly walking routes – the colonial glamour theme is the most popular as participants can choose from different Admire the civic area from the angle of view.”
In criticizing SRV tours as expensive, operators say they are actually “high cost, low profit”. Groups are kept small due to safety management measures. Costs include tour guide fees, transportation and booking platform commissions (usually 20%). Also, the meals are not standard fare, but a bespoke menu.
Betel Box Tours continues its walking and food tours without joining the SRV program, promoting its Katong, Geylang and Chinatown staples on the company’s website. The virtual event offered an opportunity when food tours were on hold during the recent five-week dining out restrictions.
Owner Director Tony Tan said: “We worked with the National University of Singapore and the Urban Redevelopment Authority to undertake an educational tour of the URA City Art Gallery for about 50 students from an Australian university. The partnership is important and we will develop more virtual options.” He acknowledged that there are technical challenges due to the different conditions of outdoor and indoor tourism. Guides must also be good at telling stories and handling equipment on live tours.
Creative Pandemic Pivot
For Nam Ho DMC, creative thinking goes beyond everyday activities. Before the pandemic, it relied heavily on the Indian market. In this dormant state, it deploys its fleet by developing a full-fledged logistics business with its own warehouses. It also launched an online B2B marketplace for non-tourism products and another B2B marketplace for local consumers to buy food from Southeast Asia and China.
Mahesh Pawanaskar, co-founder and director, said: “Our travel business is closed due to the pandemic, but it is our most valuable asset – our people that is saving us. The biggest learning point is that it’s not just survival of the fittest, it’s also The most agile and adaptable survival.”
Likewise, in the absence of a Japanese inbound and outbound business, JTB Singapore has developed side businesses including self-service vending machines selling Singapore souvenirs at Connect@Changi, as foreign tourists cannot venture outside the facility. Merchandise at Raffles Hotel is also in stock. It will soon start selling Japanese spa supplies, sweets and sake on the e-commerce platform.
Cruise sales also help teaching assistants make ends meet. “We’ve seen a lot of engagement on our nowhere two-night and three-night cruises (operated by Dream Cruises and Royal Caribbean),” said Chung Kek Yoong, CEO of Pacific Arena. “Demand for leisure travel and family reunions. There’s a lot of pent-up demand. When borders gradually reopen, that part could drive travel.”
Citing a range of measures to ensure travel can resume safely, he added: “Despite the many obstacles ahead, travel is simply too important to the economic well-being of many countries.”
STB’s Lim affirms: “We will work closely with travel agencies and tour operators to provide guidance and advisory support, drive partnerships, support product development and facilitate relevant regulatory approvals to address gaps in Singapore’s tourism landscape, while development can continue Future-oriented tourism attracts both local and international tourists.”