Singapore is no longer just a stop-over point for tourists catching connecting flights to beaches in Thailand and Bali. More travelers are making the city state their final destination, in large part after ending a decades-old ban on casinos that’s helped to double the number of Chinese visitors to the country.
Tourism is proving to be one of the bright spots in Singapore’s otherwise sluggish economy. Official figures show income from tourism surged 25 percent in the four years since the first two casino resorts were opened in 2010 — flashy and modern complexes housing hotels, shopping malls and restaurants. Credit Suisse said last month that tourist arrivals this year will probably exceed forecasts from the Singapore Tourism Board, climbing as much as 8 percent to 16.5 million compared to 2015.
That's a big deal in a country where tourism accounts for about 10 percent of gross domestic product, according to estimates from the World Travel & Tourism Council, an industry body.
The tiny island nation lacks the landscapes, beaches and ancient temples that draw thousands of visitors to nearby Thailand and Vietnam. Yet it draws more travelers than countries such as India, Indonesia and Philippines.
The city state has managed to hold onto its 4.5 percent share of all tourist arrivals in the Asia Pacific region between 2010 and 2014, even as Malaysia and Australia lost ground to nations like Thailand and South Korea, according to data from the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization.
Casinos and China's boom in outbound tourism explain some of that growth, but there’s more to the story. Singapore is also a world-leader in the business traveler market, focused on conferences and exhibitions. These visitors generally spend on average twice as much as leisure tourists, according to the Singapore Tourism Board.
Gaming and entertainment revenue is the largest single source of Singapore's tourism income, accounting for 24 percent of all receipts in the first nine months of 2015, the last period for which there is full data.
2015 was a tough year for the casinos, dragging down total tourism receipts by 6.8 percent to 22 billion Singapore dollars ($16 billion), according to the tourism agency. Tourist arrivals grew just 0.9 percent to 15.2 million last year.
That could improve this year as stronger currencies in Malaysia and Indonesia help reverse visitor declines from those countries and Singapore makes a big push to lure Chinese tourists, according to Credit Suisse.
Travelers from China to Singapore surged 34 percent in the first two months of the year compared with the same period in 2015.
"2016 could be a record year of arrivals,'" Credit Suisse analysts led by Gerald Wong, said in the report. "We expect Singapore to continue to benefit from continued growth in Chinese outbound travel."