How Singapore can charm a new generation of travelers

The Singapore Botanic Gardens.
Manfred Gottschalk | Getty Images

With its Botanic Gardens declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its spot at the top of Lonely Planet's Best Travel Destination 2015 list, Singapore has tourism sorted, right? Maybe not, say experts, who told CNBC this was a perfect time for the city-state to reinvent itself yet again.

"For Singapore to remain competitive and relevant in the future, the key is to reinvent," Yu Xian Lim, research analyst at Euromonitor, told CNBC by email. "Home to a collage of museums and heritage sites with rich local histories, Singapore can consider carving a niche in cultural tourism, especially after the recent UNESCO win."

Last year Singapore posted its first decline in visitor numbers since 2009, down 3 percent on-year to 15.1 million, due mainly to a fall in Chinese holidaymakers to the region amid political unrest in Thailand, the Malaysia Airlines' twin tragedies and tighter regulations on tour packages in the mainland.

The downtrend has continued this year despite the Lonely Planet accolade, with the number of tourists decreasing 4.1 percent through May.

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To give the sector a boost, the Singapore Tourism Board launched a 20 million Singapore dollar-campaign in June in conjunction with the nation's Golden Jubilee celebrations this year. However, Ngee Ann Polytechnic's senior tourism lecturer Michael Chiam said such "piggyback strategies" may not be enough to rejuvenate the industry from a long-term perspective.

And while World Heritage status for the 156-year-old Botanic Gardens is expected boost visitor numbers to the 74-hectare park by as much as 20 percent, according to National Parks Board, industry watchers who spoke to CNBC were less bullish about the garden's boost on overall tourist arrivals.

Instead, experts say Singapore, best known for its shopping and gastronomic opportunities, as well as an array of man-made marvels such as Marina Bay Sands, needs to cater to the rise of so-called free and independent tourists (FITS) who want alternative ways to explore a country.

"While many tourists came on tour groups in the past, we have more FITs nowadays who plan their own itinerary, like to do what the locals do and are looking for new, authentic experiences," Chiam said. "In recent years, our focus has been on adding new attractions and new events like the Singapore Grand Prix, it may be a good idea to start promoting our own culture and heritage."

The Singapore Botanic Gardens.
Gavin Hellier | Getty Images

According to analysts, Singapore offers a colorful picture of contrasting elements – from a modern metropolis to heritage quarters and pockets of greenery – in one compact location.

"Nobody travels to another country to see more of their own," Kevin Cheong, chairman of the Association of Singapore Attractions, told CNBC.

"They want to experience the local culture and savor the flavors of the land … Singapore has gone through the various stages of tourism development. First, it was 'me too' where I have what you have; second, it was 'me only' where only I have it and finally, I believe we are entering the phase of 'this is me', having the unique Singapore way of life as our tourism positioning."

And even as Singapore celebrates its 50 years of independence, experts say the island should not forget that its history and heritage started well before 1965, pointing out that local war-remembrance sites such as the Kranji War Memorial fare well in comparison to better-known overseas sites.

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According to local tour operator Star Holiday Mart, there is definitely rising demand for "less trendy" experiences that are quintessentially Singapore.

"Some of our tours have moved into the heartlands like Toa Payoh … which is an old estate and where the HDB Hub is located. Apart from showing them development plans of our housing estates, tourists can experience the Singaporean life away from glamorous shopping malls and skyscrapers," managing director Dominic Ong said.

Travelers have also put up special requests to visit Pulau Ubin - Singapore's second-largest offshore island, with a charm lies in its quiet rural surroundings with kampung houses and forest paths - and the eastern suburb of Katong, where quaint shophouses offer a glimpse into the Peranakan culture, Ong noted.

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