Can sports re-energize Singapore's tourism?

Maria Sharapova of Russia in action at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals tennis in Singapore.
Julian Finney | Getty Images

When Kristine Bachini visited Singapore last year, the Filipino tucked into multicultural cuisines at a local food court and enjoyed the modern city-state's glittering skyline from one of the world's largest observation wheels.

Her favorite memory, however, was watching Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova play at the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) Finals at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

"I am a huge fan of Sharapova. It was a dream come true to finally see her play live," Bachini told CNBC. The 30-year-old plans to revisit the Southeast Asian country this October when the tennis competition, featuring the world's top eight female singles players, comes around.

Fans like Bachini represent a growing pool of sports tourists, which Singapore wants to attract as it attempts to steer its tourism industry back on track.

Government figures show international visitor arrivals to Singapore dropped 3.1 percent on-year to 15.1 million in 2014. It was the first decline since 2009 and could be attributed to a double-digit decline in Chinese tourist arrivals, the Singapore Tourism Board said. Holidaymakers from the mainland became wary of travelling to the region last year because of political unrest in Thailand, the Malaysia Airlines' twin tragedies and tighter regulations on tour packages in China.

WTA: Women's tennis targets growth in Asia
WTA: Women's tennis targets growth in Asia

Step by step

The wealthy city-state took its first step to attract sports enthusiasts with the debut of the Singapore Grand Prix in 2008, which proved successful. The yearly three-day event, which includes the iconic night street race, chalked up an average of 150 million Singapore dollars (approximately $120 million) in earnings from each race and has attracted more than 250,000 international visitors over the past 7 years.

With the launch of a swanky new billion-dollar worth Sports Hub and world-class sporting events lined up this year, experts say Singapore appears set to claim a bigger slice of the global sports pie, which could hit $145 billion next year, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"Singapore is engineering a series of actionable plans year-on-year to build its image as an international sports hub," said Euromonitor's research analyst Cassandra Tan. "Since the first Formula One night race, Singapore has other successful bids which enhance its image and brings the country on par with other cities competing in the sports tourism arena."

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Apart from the WTA Finals, which drew nearly 130,000 spectators in its Singapore debut last year, the country will also play host to other high-profile events like the Barclays Asia Trophy, Southeast Asian Games, FINA Swimming World Cup and the Sevens World Series rugby championship. The premier rugby tournament, in particular, is the latest world-class event to become a yearly fixture on the local sporting calendar.

"All sports-related events, whether it is F1, tennis or even marathons, will bring in great number of participants from around the world, boosting Singapore's tourism figures and receipts," Alicia Seah, director of Marketing & Communications at Dynasty Travel, told CNBC. Such events could lift hotel rates by 20-30 percent, Seah added.

A picture of the Singapore stadium and brand new Sports Hub.
Felix Hug | Photolibrary | Getty Images

Not fool proof

Some analysts doubt that sports tourism can rev up the local tourism sector, however.

"I don't think it can be relied upon solely for Singapore as the market for particular events may be relatively small," Joan C. Henderson, associate professor at the Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University, said.

Instead, a weaker local currency, following a surprise easing move by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) in January, and the buzz surrounding the country's Golden Jubilee celebrations, may help boost tourist arrivals in the year ahead.

The New York Times and global travel company Lonely Planet recently named Singapore as the top travel destination for 2015, with both citing the 50th anniversary celebrations as the main attraction for holidaymakers.

"As one of the world's most multicultural cities, Singapore is always celebrating something. But Asia's smallest state has an extra special reason to put on her party hat in 2015, for it's her Golden Jubilee." Lonely Planet said last October.