The Worldfolio sits down with Hee Teck TAN to discuss Singapore’s booming tourism industry and RWS, an integrated resort on the island of Sentosa, whose key attractions include world-class hotels, one of Singapore's two casinos, a Universal Studios theme park, Adventure Cove Water Park, S.E.A. Aquarium, and the world's second largest oceanarium.
Singapore’s tourism sector attracted 17.4 million international tourists in 2017 and it represents more than 26 billion dollars for the country. It's been booming on the back of a strong economic growth in ASEAN and plays a key role within the overall ASEAN offering. How do you see Singapore’s tourism sector potential?
First and foremost, Singapore plays a very key role being an air hub and Changi Airport has done a tremendous job in building that status. Being an air hub is a distinct advantage for tourism. We always say that in today's world, the world is getting smaller especially because of the low-cost carriers, LCCs. They're bringing in quite a number of tourists in from different parts of the world. Today the long haul doesn't look long haul anymore. Long haul becomes medium haul and medium and short haul becomes very easy.
As Asia’s economy becomes bigger and better along with the high level of population, the number of outbound tourists in Asia continues to grow very well. Normally, their first stop is always the regional countries. From a bigger picture standpoint, tourism will continue to grow very well for Singapore. As far as the potential from outside of Asia is concerned, that depends also on the air flights. Now, that Singapore Airlines has non-stop flights from the US, that will really be a catalyst for tourism growth outside of Asia.
Last year, we had 21 million visitors. We, as Sentosa, account for 1/3rd of foreign visitors’ arrivals. We are very proud of that and we will continue to grow our offerings here in Sentosa. We focus on family attractions. We have Universal Studios Singapore, which is a very big magnet and we have also one of the world's largest aquariums. We have 100,000 fishes and 1,000 species. We are second to none in that sense. As a family destination, we hope that we will have more hotel rooms. In Singapore, land is scarce and of course the more hotel rooms, the better this. We're already running 91% occupancy, year-round, which means by any normal hotel standards, we are totally full. We can grow and we need to improve transportation infrastructure to continue to grow.
What is the unique offering that Singapore has over other hubs?
We have always prided ourselves on being a destination. If someone comes long haul, you won't come here for three or four days. The normal Asian traveler comes here for one or two nights. With long haul flights you fly almost 24 hours, you want to stay in a place for at least a week, two weeks. That's where us and Singapore plays a big part i.e., we are a destination meaning that you are able to come here and enjoy yourself for four days, five days with all the offerings. It's not just here in RWS, but also Sentosa as a whole because the entire island is a destination.
Changi being a hub, if someone from the US flies to Singapore, they would come to us for four, five days and then hop on to some other places. It is a hub in its true sense of the word in both as an air hub as well as a hub to also explore the rest of Southeast Asia. In that sense, they'll come here for a few days and then they'll go to other places. That's where our attraction is.
Integrated resort came to be in early 2010. How did you identify Singapore as a place where the investment was safe, and you could grow over the years?
When we first invested, we never knew that it would be safe or not safe from a monetary risk standpoint. Like investing in anything else, when you first put your money in, you do your due diligence, you do your research and at the end of the day, you still take a risk. It is still a business risk. But I must say that we have been very satisfied that the investment has been quite good. The Singapore government has been very supportive from the time when we started construction until today. The government is efficient; they are probably one of the most efficient in terms of bureaucracy, in terms of processing all the permits and requirements that we need.
Secondly, Singapore has always prided itself on being one of the most secure, safest countries in the world, both in terms of the government's law and regulation standpoint. Any investor wants to know that their investments are safe and that the rules and regulations are stable. In that sense, it's good for the investor but it's also good in terms of the visitor – because 75% of the arrivals that we draw into this resort are foreigners. Foreigners want to know that when they come to a place, they are safe.
You have been seven-times awarded the best integrated resort, as well as the best amusement park on Trip Advisor for four consecutive years, and you're constantly innovating. How have you been able to keep the number one position in integrated resort across the entire continent?
We have to work very hard. We look at both hardware and software to stay ahead. Firstly, we must make sure that our service standards are very good. That one is something that we cannot compromise. We look at it as a major challenge. As we move forward, we use more technology. We want someone to walk through the aquarium and know about the fish and its environment. As you walk, you'll be able to hear and listen just like when you walk into a museum. We are using a near-field technology, as you get nearer to each of these exhibits, it will talk to you. It is similar to when you have a curator in a museum that explains different artifacts; it makes that whole experience different. Technology will help to create better service, better experience. That's a very important part. We also allow camping inside the aquarium with our ocean dream program for children.
Hardware, we're going to redo it, redevelop it and then the software, we have to continue to be able to enhance that customer experience. Being a family destination resort, we want to enhance all these experiences. With that, we will hopefully stay ahead of the competition. In Asia, I don't know of any other property or destination that's investing so much in enhancing all these experiences.
RWS is one of the biggest employers in Singapore. Can you tell us about this economic and social impact?
We are the biggest private sector employer in Singapore. We have some 13,000 team members with us and they are part of 13,000 families. Quite a number of them are actually the sole breadwinner. We look after our team members very well. We see them as part of our entire family. Looking after them obviously is no easy task as we have 13,000 and especially when we run 24 by 7. We engage them in all our discussions especially when we make improvements.
Being a resort, everybody checks in at the same time and everybody checks out at the same time. We're talking about thousands of people checking in. Here, we also look at how we can enhance the technology so that check-in and check-out can be seamless. Just like Changi terminal 4, they have almost fully automated the check-in process. We are looking at something similar for our guests. In the next phase which we are now doing, that software part is very important. When our team members face difficult issues, we need to solve their issues because solving their issues also means solving our customer issues. To us, those two things come together.
You are recognized as a family destination here in Asia today, how do you want to be recognized in the minds of American tourists?
I would like our American guests to see us as a very different family resort destination. Most of the major family destinations in the US would be Orlando, Anaheim, Yellowstone National Park. I believe Americans would enjoy our Asian touch as it has some form of an exotic feel, even our Universal Studios and Aquarium.
As we are in a tropical setting, their experience will be different from what they would see in the US. While we have the same Universal Studios, even some of our rides in the theme park are different from those in the US. All of us like to experience different cultures. Here we also have excellent and varied food events. We take all the best street foods from Southeast Asia and bring it through a concept called “Street Food”. You don't have to go through the whole of Asia, you can find it here. When they come here, I want them to have a feel of what Asia is all about. This is the whole cultural experience. The software part is sometimes more important to give all our visitors that unique experience.