Lessons from Singapore

I’ve just got back from a four-day trip to Singapore for ITB Asia, the region’s biggest travel trade show. I have mixed feelings about Singapore — living in Vietnam, it’s nice to escape to somewhere peaceful and orderly for a few days, but generally I find Singapore to be lacking in charm. Most of its old colonial buildings have been bulldozed to make way for tower blocks, it lacks the bustling street life one normally associates with big Asian cities, and beer is ruinously expensive. And yet despite this, Singapore attracts serious tourist numbers – nearly 12 million of them in 2010. How it does this contains valuable lessons for Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam as a whole, as it struggles to develop sustainable growth in tourism.

 

Firstly, Singapore has woken up to the damage done to its image by years of architectural vandalism and is now taking very good care of what remains of its colonial architecture, with old buildings being tastefully converted into hotels, galleries, arcades, restaurants and the like. Chinatown, in particular, is a stunning example of how to turn an old, run-down district into a bustling visitor attraction with restaurants, shops and markets – the same thing could be done very successfully in some of the old streets of Cholon, or the old Saigon Port buildings along Ton Duc Thang. But it still seems that in Vietnam, colonial buildings are allowed to decay, or are simply knocked down and replaced with something more boring and functional. For some cities, Saigon in particular, it may already be too late.

 

Secondly, Singapore has a zero-tolerance policy towards the kind of antisocial behaviour that puts many tourists off repeat visits to Vietnam. It’s so nice to walk down a pavement unimpeded by hawkers, motorbikes or spitters, just as it is refreshing to encounter taxi drivers who know their city, can make shopping or restaurant recommendations, and who don’t try to rip you off at the end of your journey. Civility is the norm in Singapore, and people go out of their way to help tourists rather than hassle them or make money out of them. Admittedly Singapore’s Big Brother authoritarianism can get a little silly – it’s the only city in the world where you’ll see litter outlined in chalk rather than murder victims – but there’s no denying that its people are very courteous, polite and welcoming to visitors.

 

Thirdly, Singapore has stuff to do, and nearly all of it is family-friendly. Plenty of visitor attractions (Sentosa Island alone attracted more visitors in 2010 than the whole of Vietnam) and new ones being added all the time – Saigon’s list of attractions hasn’t changed in the nine years I’ve lived here. Shopping to suit all pockets, rather than just knock-off markets or overpriced designer malls. Riverside walks that are perfect for jogging, cycling and pushchairs. Dedicated entertainment districts such as Clarke Quay or the aforementioned Chinatown, which pull in hordes of shoppers, diners and revellers seven nights a week. And all of it easily accessible by the quick and cheap (SGD1 a journey) MRT underground system.

 

And finally, and most importantly in its implication for Vietnam’s tourism industry – NO VISAS!

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