For wealthy jetsetters, Singapore still packs a punch

Tourists taking a picture before the Sultan Mosque in Singapore.
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Tourists taking a picture before the Sultan Mosque in Singapore.

The Malaysia Airlines' twin tragedies and the unrest in Thailand may have taken the wind out of the sails of Singapore's tourism sector, but one segment in particular is bucking the downtrend: luxury travel.

A stay at the city-state's iconic Raffles Hotel, a swim in the infinity pool on the top of Marina Bay Sands and high-end gourmet experiences are what keep the rich coming. Industry players tell CNBC that the Singapore state remains a highly sought-after vacation spot among the rich from the U.S., Hong Kong, Taiwan and most recently, Russia.

"[Luxury travel in Singapore] is really picking up. Singapore's become fashionable and acquired a cool in a way that was unthinkable just a few years ago,"Hajar Ali, founder of luxury travel operator Urbane Nomads, told CNBC via email.

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"A country that was once described as 'Disneyland with a death penalty' now lists [as] one of the coolest cities in the world, according to British Vogue," she added.

A city of 5.3 million, Singapore is one of Asia's most developed and affluent countries. Synonymous with its reputation for a high quality of life, low crime rates, superior infrastructure and cleanliness, Singapore has also been regularly named as one of the world's most expensive cities. Transport costs in the city-state, for example, are almost three times higher than in New York, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit's (EIU) Worldwide Cost of Living survey released earlier this year.

Government figures show international visitor arrivals to Singapore for the first half of the year fell 2.8 percent on-year to 7.5 million. This is due mainly to a decline in Chinese visitor arrivals, the Singapore Tourism Board said.

Tourists from China have become wary of traveling to the region because of political unrest in Thailand, the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines flight in March and a new Chinese law that restricts cheap tour packages.

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But for wealthy holidaymakers, these concerns appear to be of little deterrent to visiting Singapore, which they see as a safe and orderly holiday destination. In addition, travelers who are on their first visit to Asia also prefer Singapore as it provides "less of a culture shock", noted Tim Russell, Marketing Director of New York-based luxury travel designer Remote Lands.

With gourmet experiences being one of the main requirements among wealthy jetsetters, Singapore's wide variety of delicacies is a huge draw.

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"Singapore offers an interesting genre of local food and variety, including high-end places like Restaurant Andre. I've had clients coming for the weekend just to dine at Andre," said Urbane Nomads' Hajar.

Ranked in the sixth position in CNN's "Asia's 50 Best Restaurants" last year, Restaurant Andre – a 30-seater eatery located in the historic Bukit Pasoh district – has been prized for its intricate French nouvelle cuisine and intimate dining experience.

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"I want people to feel like it's coming to Andre's house. So we don't have a fixed menu and we let our farmers and fishermen pick what's the best [produce] for the day. I'm always here and my wife is greeting the guests, so it's a very intimate relationship with our guests and very different compared to the conventional restaurant," Taiwanese-born Chef Andre Chiang told CNBC's "First Class."

Singapore's local cuisine is also a hit. While wealthy holidaymakers may be concerned about eating street food in Thailand and Vietnam, they have no qualms about trying local food in the city's clean hawker centers, Remote Lands' Russell said.

While the itinerary usually includes visits to Singapore's landmark tourist attractions like the Night Safari and Universal Studios, a crash course on the city's colonial past and rich cultural diversity is always welcomed.

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"Our clients want to experience and learn more about the destination they are in. Singapore's colonial history is always a big draw so history walks at the Botanic Gardens, Asian Civilization Museum and Little India are popular," Russell said.

The main draw, however, is still Raffles Hotel – the five-star colonial-styled accommodation which first opened its doors in 1887. "Older American travelers still want to stay in this historic colonial property. It's one of the icons in Singapore and remains the biggest highlight for our clients who want to know about Singapore's past," he added.

However, the city state's orderly image also means that it loses out on younger visitors who crave adventure. Connie Tan, marketing director of Royale Dynasty, told CNBC that Singapore is seen as "less edgy" among the well-traveled and affluent younger generation.

"For many of our younger clients below 35 years old, Singapore is usually a 'landing spot' in between other Asian countries. They prefer going elsewhere because Singapore is so similar to other cities. So far we've handled requests for private dinners in a cave at Vietnam's Halong Bay as well as Cambodia's Angkor Wat. These are natural and unique experiences that Singapore don't have," she said.