Hong Kong and Singapore compete for the tourist dollar, and there's a stand-out winner

How Singapore attracts tourists
How Singapore attracts tourists

Singapore was the top tourist destination by expenditure in the Asia Pacific in 2016, according to an index from MasterCard released this week. The Lion City easily topped long-time competitor Hong Kong, which ranked 10th by that metric.

Singapore tourism arrivals hit a record high in 2016, bringing in 24.8 billion Singapore dollars ($17.7 billion) to the city state. A majority of the tourists came from nearby countries like China, Indonesia and India.

"The center of the universe is moving to Asia," David Scowsill, CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council, told CNBC. He cited high growth figures in the region and said, "A lot of this [growth] is driven by China. The Chinese market has gone from 58 million (outbound trips) in 2010 to 135 million now."

Suhaimi Abdullah | Stringer | Getty Images

Those Chinese tourists, however, are not visiting Hong Kong as much as they used to — although they still made up 77 percent of all visitors to the city last year. In February 2017, the number of mainland Chinese tourists coming in to Hong Kong was down by 7 percent according to data from the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

Hong Kong has been an important shopping destination for Chinese tourists, and its tourist industry was hit as shoppers became more careful with their cash during tighter economic conditions.

Allan Zeman, chairman of the Lan Kwai Fong Group, which helps oversee an iconic party district in Hong Kong, said he's confident the city's tourism numbers will only increase from here.

"I think that [tourism] seems to have bottomed out in Hong Kong at the moment…but it is rising a bit," Zeman said, adding that a bridge under construction between Hong Kong, Macau, Zhuhai, would make connect those tourist hot spots and attract more visitors.

"I think the secret for both locations is they have to continue to reinvent themselves with new product so that visitors, particularly on the leisure side, come not once, not twice, but continually visit the location every three or four years," Scowsill said.

Hong Kong, the event capital of Asia?
Hong Kong, the event capital of Asia?

Singapore and Hong Kong are often compared as travel destinations because tourist attractions in both countries are man-made, and they rely heavily on experiences such as shopping, amusement parks and restaurants. One of the main challenges for both cities has therefore been getting the same tourists make repeated visits.

The Singapore Tourism Board is trying to ensure the city state remains relevant by organizing a robust line of events throughout the year and forming strategic partnerships.

"Partnerships with Changi Airport and Singapore Airlines allow us to go into the international marketing space in a much more concerted way and effective way. We also have very good partnerships with JTB in Japan and Flight Centre in Australia, and that's helping us to drive tourists from those destinations as well," Lionel Yeo, CEO of the Singapore Tourism Board, told CNBC.

About 58.7 million passengers pass through Singapore's Changi every year, and that airport has been ranked the world's best for five consecutive years.

Events are a major attraction for tourists to Singapore, and its Formula 1 race has been a major crowd-puller over the past eight years. To add to that success, the Singapore tourism board is working to bring in other sporting events. Soccer's International Champions Cup, which will be held for the first time in Singapore this year, and mixed-martial arts showdown UFC Fight Night will be held there in June.

In Hong Kong, the annual Rugby Sevens attracts a large amount of tourists to the city, and Zeman told CNBC the city needs more such events.

"I think we need to look at having an event a month, and if we can, become the event capital of Asia," he said.

Both Singapore and Hong Kong are so-called MICE hubs — which is short for destinations for meetings, incentive travel, conventions and exhibitions. As important financial centers, attracting tourism dollars from business travelers provides a large source of income.

Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that Singapore topped the MasterCard index for visitor expenditure in Asia Pacific.