Tourists in front of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown (above) earlier this year. -- PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
SINGAPORE has to keep reinventing itself to keep pulling in repeat visitors.
But old can be tourism gold too, and keeping a fine balance between the two will be this country's challenge as it tackles slowing growth in tourist numbers - according to the chief of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).
"You have to keep investing and innovating to make sure people don't come just once," said Mr David Scowsill, president and chief executive of the London-based council.
He pointed to the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix, which made its debut in 2008, and the two integrated resorts, Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa, which opened in 2010, as examples of newer attractions.
But Mr Scowsill, who has more than 20 years of experience in the travel industry, warned against forgetting the lure of local heritage, saying too many historical sites here have been lost.
"If there was a mistake Singapore made, it was many years ago when it lost too much of the old parts of town. Buildings were going up and Chinese shophouses were being torn down," he said.
The same thing happened in Shanghai and Beijing, he noted.
"Now, if people want to see something from the past, they will visit the streets of the old parts of Haikou (in Hainan) because that is what Singapore was like years ago."
Mr Scowsill's comments - made on the sidelines of WTTC's global summit held in Hainan two weeks ago - come as Singapore's tourism industry, which accounts for 4 per cent of gross domestic product, faces the prospect of slower growth over the next decade.
Growth in visitor arrivals and tourism spending last year was the lowest since 2009.
A Singapore Tourism Board (STB) forecast projected that arrivals will grow between 3 per cent and 4 per cent year-on-year over the next decade, with tourism receipts tipped to increase between 4 per cent and 6 per cent.
This is down from the record growth between 2002 and 2012, when arrivals expanded at a compounded annual rate of 6.6 per cent, with spending up around 10 per cent over the same period.
Singapore had 15.5 million visitors last year, a 7.2 per cent increase from 2012. They spent $23.5 billion, up just 1.6 per cent from 2012.
Industry players The Straits Times spoke to agreed that many historical sites, important for tourism appeal, made way for infrastructure like public housing and schools.
This means Singapore "has no choice" but to continually come up with new products so tourists will come back, said Dr Michael Chiam, a senior lecturer in tourism at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
But more can be done to market local culture and heritage to tourists. He suggested promoting local cuisine on a bigger scale and tourists could also visit old estates, with locals sharing what the places mean to them, he added.
Mr Kevin Cheong, chairman of the Association of Singapore Attractions, said: "Every place has a story of how it began... and how it has become what it is today."
The STB has been working to enhance ethnic enclaves such as Chinatown and Little India.
Historical buildings are also being revitalised. For instance, the upcoming Sofitel So hotel is being built on the former Ogilvy Centre, a conservation site, while the National Gallery Singapore will reopen next year housed in the former Supreme Court.
At the same time, said Mr Cheong, Singapore must avoid another possible "mistake" - products aimed solely at visitors, such as the Singapore River cruises and trishaw rides that do not help tourists understand the local culture and heritage better.