Singapore hopes to fill hotels with tourists who stay longer, spend more

This affluent Asian city-state, which is pinning much of its hope for the future on tourism, is adrift in a sea of unused hotel space. To fill that space, the Singapore government has embarked on a five-year, $500 million program to boost tourism revenue by attracting more tourists - and getting those who come to stay longer and spend more. The plan could help keep more than 15,000 service jobs. It would also help boost the sagging fortunes of a construction industry that suffered a slump in 1985 and '86.

The tourism program calls for expenditures of $200 for each of the 2.5 million citizens here. That's fairly low compared with other Asian destinations. Hong Kong figures on spending $290; Tokyo, over $500. Only Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital, is lower, at $190.

The average tourist visit to Singapore lasts just 3 days. Increasing the length of the stay alone would be a big help.

``Even a half day more for conventioneers,'' says Dui Tui Leong, deputy director of the Singapore Tourism Board, ``will generate tremendous income.'' If the goal of adding a half day to each visitor's itinerary by 1990 is reached, it would bring in nearly $400 million in additional revenues.

With hotel overbuilding continuing this year, room rates are in their second year at bargain levels. The 19,000 hotel rooms available during the recession year of 1985 have mushroomed to more than 24,000, and 2,000 more are on stream. Occupancy rates in 1986 were as low as 25 percent in some major properties, causing serious financial losses.

``We aim for about 7 percent [in occupancy increases] this year,'' a confident tourism official declares. That would result in 400,000 more room-nights.

A spokesman for the Mandarin Hotel group speaks for many in the hospitality industry. ``Losses since 1985 ... have put a lot of us in difficult times. But there is a lot that can be done here, if we position ourselves differently to keep up with competition'' from other parts of Asia.

Mr. Leong points out that for Japanese - who made up 400,000 of the 3.2 million visitors in 1986 - the British colonial image has appeal, as does Singapore's reputation for safety. Shopping discounts attract North Americans. A growing number of visitors are coming in from neighboring countries in Southeast Asia as well. And the Tourism Board believes that most visitors want Singapore to keep its ``Asia'' appearance despite the skyscraper boom and Westernization of some areas.

Other aspects of the tourism overhaul call for developing upscale shopping districts. Haw Par Villa, the celebrated Tiger Balm Gardens, will be renovated by 1989 to include a theme park. The highlight is a Disney-styled underground ride through an Oriental fantasy.

Graham Hornel, an official with the Pacific Area Travel Association in San Francisco, notes that Asian tourism should increase rapidly in the next few years.

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