Sun, 06 Jul 2003

Singapore roars back after silence of SARS

Maria Endah Hulupi, The Jakarta Post, Singapore

The masks are off in Singapore and the island-state is trying its best to get local residents and travelers back into its shops, restaurants and hotels after the damage done by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

One of the first countries affected by SARS, Singapore found itself the subject of travel warnings from many of its major tourist markets, including fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Tourist arrivals from May 27 to June 2 were 48,600, a decline of 65 percent from the same period last year.

Today, with the removal of Singapore from the list of SARS- affected countries by the World Health Organization (WHO) on May 30, things are looking up.

"Singaporeans are stepping out of their houses and visitors have also returned to the country to shop, eat, go to events and experience other activities that the country has to offer. This is a positive sign," said Lim Neo Chian, deputy chairman of the Singapore Tourism Board (STB).

Last year, the local tourist sector, which contributes about 4 percent to the country's revenue and supports close to 108,000 jobs, had about S$9billion (US$5.12 billion) in revenue. But the SARS outbreak forced STB to revise down its revenue target for this year to between S$6 billion ($3.4 billion) and S$7 billion ($3.98 billion).

As part of its global recovery program, the board has launched campaigns like "Step Out Singapore" to encourage Singaporeans to resume their normal activities. For foreign travelers, there is a six-month-long program called "Singapore Roars", offering tourist packages at up to 50 percent off normal prices, as well as the Great Singapore Sale, which ends on July 13.

Lim said that a S$200 million recovery program, jointly funded by the STB, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) and other tourist institutions, had been launched to support its campaigns, which are hoped to attract about 4 million visitors in the next semester with targeted tourism revenue of S$4 billion ($2.27 billion).

"The figure dropped quite a lot in April and May because of SARS but there are still a few more months to go. I believe that, with our intensive efforts and with the roaring deals that we have lined up for visitors from overseas, in the last six months of the year we will do better than the previous semester," Lim added.

When SARS hit, the government swiftly issued quarantine orders and temporarily suspended school activities in an effort to contain the disease. It also implemented the "detect, isolate and contain" strategy, which included installing thermal imaging scanners to detect visitors with SARS symptoms at the country's points of entry, as well as hotels, malls and other public facilities to curb the spread of the virus.

Those with symptoms of SARS were referred to Tan Tock Seng hospital, while the public in general were provided with information and preventative measures.

To assure the public and visitors, the Cool Award campaign, which included daily temperature checks, was launched at public facilities like ports, hotels, restaurants and on the street. Those who pass the health screening receive a "I'm cool" badge.

Double cleaning frequencies were implemented for common facilities like railings, lift buttons and toilets.

"The precautionary measures will continue forever or at least until a cure is found. We are also working together with other ASEAN countries to ensure that we don't export or import SARS," said STB's regional director for Southeast Asia, Aloysius Arlando, during the launching of Singapore Roars in Jakarta recently.

He estimated that it would take about two years for the country to recover to its pre-SARS situation.

"We are currently looking at the regional market, Malaysia, Indonesia and other ASEAN countries as things return to normal. We believe that for the regional market, the pick up will be very quick," Lim said.

"(A)nd for Indonesia, we hope we will be able to maintain the target of 1.392 million visitors," he said, referring to Singapore's status as a favorite shopping, health care and vacation destination for Indonesians.

One Indonesian who has made his way back to Singapore is Johanes, who was staying three days in the city with his family before going to Thailand,

"Every time I travel abroad I usually make a two or three-day visit to Singapore. My wife loves to shop here, especially during sales like now, since prices are a lot cheaper than in Jakarta. I like to eat and try new restaurants .... There are always things to do around here," he said.

"At first we were uncertain about making this trip and we even brought along our masks, but it's reassuring to see that no one is wearing a mask and to know that WHO has removed Singapore from its SARS list," he said.

This kind of sunny outlook is just what Singapore wants after the dark days of SARS.