From ‘Pay $50k to holiday in S’pore’, 25 April 2013, article by Jessica Lim, ST
TRANSFER by private jet, suite bookings at a five-star hotel, reservations at celebrity chef restaurants and a chauffeur at their beck and call. This is the kind of itinerary – costing up to $50,000 per person for a five-day trip – that inbound travel agency Hong Thai woos its well-heeled customers with.
Such niche offerings have proved a hit with tourists from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia – two countries singled out for targeting in a new discussion paper from the Singapore Tourism Board (STB). Hong Thai’s director, Mr Alex Chan, 55, started offering such packages in 2011 and saw the number of tourists from these places increase by 10 per cent in just a year.
It could be because Mr Chan has them figured out to a tee. Russians, looking to escape from harsh winters back home, prefer hotels by the beach. Tourists from the UAE tend to opt for accommodation located in shopping districts, he said.
“You know what they say – that Russians like vodka? It’s true. They’re known to clear out hotel minibars, so we make sure they are well-stocked,” said Mr Chan, whose agency seems to be ahead of the curve.
The Russians’ fascination with Singapore began since the days of the Soviet Union. In 1967, they were the first group of visitors from a Communist country to fly in for sight-seeing. Travel agents were keen on establishing tourism partnerships as early as 1969 for the benefit of eager Russian academics who wanted to know more about the historical and cultural aspects of a ‘new independent country’. Soviet philologist Ann Kartvelishvile said Singapore was ‘so much like home’, home referring to ‘a warm and friendly place somewhere between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea’. Sochi, a Black Sea resort, was also the site of the Friendship Tree, a symbol of Singapore-Soviet UNITY, where Lee Kuan Yew in 1970 grafted a sprig of citrus alongside personalities like Yuri Gagarin and HO CHIH MINH.
Today, they’re among the biggest European spenders, staying in luxurious five-star hotels in Sentosa, Swissotel and splurging like czars on helicopter tours or private yachts to take them to Bintan and even the EQUATOR. Tour operator Uniglobal specialises in bringing Singapore and Russia together, pampering guests with a fuss-free holiday and great privileges for the ‘ultimate shopping experience’. JetQuay services will even ferry you from the terminal the very moment you touch down in Singapore. This image from their brochure says it all:
If they’re not here to be chauffeured in Ferraris, eat Jumbo seafood, tour Sentosa in 7-star bejewelled VIP Cable Cars (yes, these exist) and ‘wipe out’ our hotel minibars in presidential suites, they’re here for medical services. In 2008, it was reported that ‘15 to 20 Russians come to Singapore to seek treatment EVERY day’. Well, that and escaping the harsh winter, too, via direct flight from Moscow with SIA (circa 2006).
In fact, the Russians may love Singapore so much they may even want to build a little version of us in Siberia, more specifically a special economic zone (SEZ) in Katun. Professor Andry Alpatov had his sights set on our expertise in ‘masterplanning and design’, in particular our experience with Sentosa’s IRs. The affection is mutual; our office temperatures are set so low that conditions have been described as ‘winter in Siberia’. Russians are also settling in rather nicely here, calling Singapore ‘paradise’ for its climate and ‘orderliness’, though their culture is slow to catch on among us locals. It is a country known more for its charismatic leaders than, say, Vaganova ballet. In my youth, everything I knew about Russia came from Arnie action movies like Red Heat.
Hong Thai’s Alex Chan risks stereotyping his clients as drunks with his choice of words, though ‘vodka’ seems to be the only Russian word that the average Singaporean knows. With more of them coming our way, perhaps it would be, well, nice to first master the Russian word for ‘hello’ – zdravstvuite, which to the non-Russian sounds more like what aliens from the planet Zdorg would call an ‘apartment’. In 2009, Russian officials reported that there were 2000 of their countrymen living in Singapore, while tourist numbers surged from 19,000 in 2004 to almost 60,000 in 2011. One such visitor, however, decided to make bomb threat just last week on an SIA flight. Not sure if he was drinking vodka on board though.