Singapore as a tourist destination is going through tough times.
According to the Singapore Tourism Board's preliminary estimates released in February 2016, the Republic's tourism receipts fell last year for the first time in six years by 6.8 percent to S$22 billion.
After a high of being the fourth most visited city in the 2013 MasterCard survey of the top 20 global destination cities, it dropped to seventh in 2015. Dubai, Istanbul, and New York have overtaken Singapore in the last two years and it may soon be struggling to hold onto a top ten place with Kuala Lumpur and Seoul very close behind.
Factors outside Singapore's control have contributed to the decline in visitors. The global economic downturn has made budget destinations more attractive and these emerging destinations have developed their shopping and tourist attractions.
However, Singapore could be partly to blame for overplaying its image as a millionaire’s playground.
If we take a fresh look at the cultural assets of Singapore, the things that make it uniquely Singaporean are not swanky rooftop bars, integrated resorts, and shopping malls; it's Singapore’s people, the mix of cultures, and above all, the local food.
Food in Singapore offers a great opportunity to teach visitors about the different ethnic groups, how they came to be here, and what they brought to the country.
A study I conducted in 2013 set out to investigate how visitors to Singapore feel about food tours. Preliminary research showed that guided food tours were not widely available in Singapore compared to other destinations in Asia and South America with a similarly rich food culture.
A digital survey was completed on touch-screen tablets in areas with a high concentration of tourists. The survey was completed by 170 tourists from 26 countries: 70 from Asia, 62 from Europe, 28 from North America, and 13 from Australasia. First time visitors made up 73% of respondents.
The survey found that although 82% had tried local Singaporean food, 81% had no knowledge of the existence of food tours in Singapore. Tourists were also asked to rate the attractiveness of a mock food tour lasting six hours in a group of eight people, including more than 25 local dishes and a talk covering history, culture, architecture, and the local lifestyle.
Attractiveness was found to be closely associated with high scores on the perception of food in Singapore, the expected tour experience, and the perceived value of the tour. Respondents rated the mock food tour as highly attractive and 57% would be willing to pay more than S$50 for the tour.
Food has been identified as an effective tool in promoting and positioning destinations. While the current food tour scene in Singapore is still underdeveloped, there is a very real demand and opportunity for those promoting and targeting tourist foodies.
To capitalise on this opportunity, the promotion and marketing of food tours needs to be scaled up, with offers and vouchers communicated via smartphone platforms either before or shortly after tourists arrive in the country. With so many food options available, and little time to experience them all without local knowledge, consideration needs to be given to tailoring explicit itineraries and promoting good value experiences in order to enhance tourist's overall experience of the city.
Five tips for creating a great food tour
• Tailor your tour to suit desired walking distances – while some tourists want to see as many sights as possible in between tasting stops, others may be less keen to walk too far
• Cater for differing levels of adventurism and spice in suggesting various dishes
• Make sure you know where the restroom stops are along the way
• Identify tourist-friendly local chefs who have time to spend a few minutes explaining the history behind the dishes
• Don't forget to encourage guests to take photos and share online and with their friends – it's also a great way for them to keep a record of where they've been
Singaporean start-up BeMyGuest seems to have nailed it. It is a provider of Asian tours and activities and recently ranked 33rd position in Fast Company's annual list of the world's most innovative companies. BeMyGuest offers food tours, along with other tours and activities, globally, and has more than 15 different food tours in Singapore, including special tours for Chinese New Year.
BeMyGuest is not a traditional travel agency; it offers a platform that connects independent travellers with tours and activities when they book flights or hotels. Their platform plugs into other booking systems, which allows travel agencies, hotels, and airlines to offer their customers tours and activities when customers book with them.
Founder and CEO Clement Wong understands the appeal of food tours to Asian tourists, saying: "Food tours are our staple product. Our tours in Singapore are actually very popular, especially with visitors from China, our largest market."
If Singapore is to regain its place as one of the most visited cities in the world, we need more companies to take up the challenge of bringing visitors back to Singapore. And innovative food tours may be the way to go.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Dr Christine Lim is a Fellow of the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight and Associate Professor, Marketing & International Business, Nanyang Business School, NTU. She is an expert in the econometric modelling of travel and tourism data.