Should Singapore’s government outsource Sentosa?

Sentosa Singapore is in trouble. Outsourcing its management and planning is arguably the only option the government has in order to save it.

By John Pennington, edited by Francesca Ross

The entertainment resort Sentosa Singapore is marketed as “Asia’s Favourite Playground” and “The State of Fun”. It may still be fun, but visitor numbers – both to Sentosa and to Singapore in general – are falling. The decline has been steady since 2010, with a 35% drop between 2015 and 2016.

Several attractions have closed down; Fantasy Island, Underwater World, Dolphin Lagoon are all gone after failing to attract enough visitors when similar attractions opened nearby. Accidents and fatalities, including that of a construction worker in 2014, have damaged the resort’s reputation.

The opening of Resorts World Sentosa had a huge impact on Sentosa

Sentosa is controlled by the Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) under the purview of the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) shares the island with SDC and is developed and managed by Genting Singapore, part of a global conglomerate specialising in resort management.

While Sentosa flounders, RWS prospers. SDC brought in revenues of more than S$200 million (US$147 million) in 2015, RWS’s turnover was more than S$2 billion (US$1.5 billion). Genting Singapore’s revenues for 2016 stood at S$557.7 million (US$397.2 million).

There was a boost for the whole island when RWS launched in 2010 but it now grabs the lion’s share of visitors. Association of Singapore Attractions (ASA) chairman Kevin Cheong calls it the “front door” of Sentosa, saying it “overshadows the identity of Sentosa as an island.” The management of the SDC is aiming for a “vibrant island resort with multi-faceted appeal,” but is sadly falling short.

Foreign and local tourists are flocking to RWS and leaving Sentosa behind

RWS’ Universal Studios and Sea Aquarium are well advertised but older attractions are not. “We heard that some work has been done to the area, but we only knew about Universal Studios. When we finally got here, we saw that there were other things to do…that might be something for (the older attractions) to work on,” explained Ray Swanson, an Australian tourist.

Sentosa’s other problem is that local visitors are not interested. They feel that the attractions do not offer good value.

Tourism is evolving and Sentosa must adapt to keep up

The nature of resort tourism has also changed. “Tour agencies used to bring visitors to us. Now, many travel free-and-easy and must actively choose us,” the ASA’s man Cheong explained. Resorts and attractions must now be far more proactive in order to attract and retain customers, especially in the face of newer, more integrated resorts.

Soon after RWS opened cam Marina Bay Sands (MBS). In its first year, it attracted 19.6 million visitors and sustained high visitor numbers for the years that followed.  Those two resorts sweep up the bulk of the country’s gaming revenue in their casinos and are regular features on “must-do lists” of foreign tourists.

Sentosa also loses out to resorts in neighbouring countries. “In the past, there was no regional competition. Now countries like the Philippines and Cambodia are all fighting for a slice of the pie,” Cheong added.

Approval for an integrated resort and casino on Mactan Island in the Philippines has just been granted. An integrated resort in Bavet City, Cambodia is planned and even Vietnam is gambling on similar projects.

Work is being done to refresh Sentosa

The SDC is now working on its 2030 masterplan for the island, but is that timeframe too slow? Bavet City could be operational by 2019 and Mactan Island by 2022. There are fears Sentosa could end up even further behind.

Experts suggest the older Singaporean resort should switch from family-orientated activities to more youth-orientated activities. They could attract more people if their offer was significantly different from RWS.

“The island has to think about what the tourists really want,” Nanyang Polytechnic’s Shirley Tee said. “RWS has recently started the Malaysian food fair and now they have a Korean one, but we need to think for ourselves, tourists are coming over and they want something truly local and authentic. Something like a Singaporean-style hawker centre, maybe?”

SDC could expand Sentosa but also needs to take on board feedback and advice

The underutilised southern islands, which also come under SDC’s remit, were earmarked for development before plans were shelved in 2007. One idea is a “getaway” resort enabling tourists to escape from the city. Significant investment would be required to develop there, but it could pay off.

The government has urged the tourism industry to come up with unique content but it hinders that process by maintaining control. Sentosa needs a huge overhaul. New attractions are needed. Older ones need to be updated. A proper advertising and marketing plan needs to be developed. The project’s management and planning must be more effective.

SDC’s team acknowledge they need help. “In our continual efforts to strengthen the island’s value proposition for guests, SDC is inviting international and local urban planners, architects and their allied consultants to assist in the planning of the next phase of Sentosa’s development,” said branding and communications director Tay Cheng Cheng.

Outsourcing would provide opportunities for fresh development and new ideas

It would not be a step into the unknown for the resort’s leadership to collaborate with other developers, or outsource the planning and management of the resort completely.  IMDA previously came in as a partner in the Green Wi-Fi programme.

This would require significant organisational restructuring as SDC is also in charge of four subsidiaries – Sentosa Leisure Management, Sentosa Cove Resort Management, Sentosa Golf Club and Mount Faber Leisure Group.

Sentosa needs fresh ideas and proactive management and the government is not in a position to deliver. Up against the likes of Genting Group, who manage resorts all over the world, now is the time to outsource to companies and developers with the right experience and expertise to take Sentosa forward.

About the Author

John Pennington
John Pennington is an English freelance writer and a self-published author. He graduated from the University of Warwick with a bachelor’s degree in French and History in 2006. After spending time as a sports journalist, he now writes about politics, history and social affairs.