- Singapore’s borders have been closed since March 2020, and it has virtually no domestic travel.
- We spoke to three local tour operators to see how they survived the pandemic.
- One company said they pivoted to local experiences, but they only pull in 50% of their pre-pandemic revenue.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
When Singapore closed its borders in March 2020, the number of visitors to the island plunged 99% from what it was the previous year. Then came the cancelation requests.
“Around 70% of our bookings were cancelled, and 30% were postponed,” said Krystal Tan, director of Blue Sky Escapes, a local travel company known for crafting off-the-beaten-path experiences in destinations like Bhutan and Peru.
She wasn’t alone.
“Overnight, bookings came to a standstill,” said Jess Yap, one of the founders of travel agency Intriq Journey, which launched in Singapore last January.
Thanks to the border closures brought on by the pandemic, travel operators around the world were forced to find new revenue streams. This was especially true for those in the business of planning overseas travel – and, by extension, for travel operators in Singapore. The city-state, which is the size of New York City, has virtually no domestic travel.
Insider spoke with three Singapore travel companies to find out how they stayed afloat when their core business offering disappeared.
New ways to discover Singapore
Pre-pandemic, bespoke luxury travel specialist Quotient Travel was known for long-haul, multi-country holidays that could include a visit to the Sahara Desert or a meal at three-Michelin-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo.
Javiny Lim, the cofounder and managing director of Quotient Travel, said the travel company usually sells 150 holidays a year. In Q2 last year, it had zero bookings.
Quotient Travel has since designed eight new tours. Some of those, like the “Eat, Pray, Love at Balestier” ($71 per person), take you to iconic landmarks and hidden finds alike, such as one of the last remaining traditional bakeries and coffee roasters in Singapore.
Others, like The Great Singapore Road Trip, draw inspiration from iconic holidays in places like New Zealand and Japan. The Singapore road trip is a two-day, self-drive itinerary at $5 per person encompassing local “national parks” (Singapore does not have designated national parks), a former Grand Prix street circuit, and a seaside lunch in a neoclassical home built in 1910.
Blue Sky Escapes, too, offers new ways of exploring Singapore.
One popular option is a tour through Singapore’s last kampung (village) in Lorong Buangkok ($315 for up to five persons), a quaint hodgepodge of zinc-roofed homes – complete with kitchen gardens and strolling chickens – that defy time.
“It’s home to 29 families – most of the residents don’t speak English or even own a mobile phone,” said Tan. “It’s a wonderful chance to step back in time and understand what ‘kampung spirit’ is truly about.”
Blue Sky Escapes has also found a niche with its wellness retreats, which debuted in January. Among these is a three-day, two-night retreat from $2,590 per person that claims to help guests “find themselves” through stillness and meditation. Held at Villa Samadhi, a restored century-old mansion in Labrador nature reserve, each retreat includes embodied movement and sound healing.
New audiences and shorter experiences
When Singapore’s travel bubble with Hong Kong was called off for the first time in November, Yap of Intriq Journey realized she needed to “do more than just [sell] staycations and cruises-to-nowhere.”
She also found herself having to re-examine her target client: The industry veteran works with clients who typically spend $10,000-$12,000 per person, per trip.
Last year, she changed her approach and launched virtual trips from $80 per person. One of those, a two-day “trip” to Beijing and Chengdu for a local college, allowed the students to see the Great Wall of China and explore Chengdu’s vibrant street food scene.
“It’s not a pre-recorded presentation. There’s an actual guide, a host,” said Yap, who added that guests can interact with guides and meet new people in real time. “It’s real life, straight from the location.”
Lim said Quotient Travel’s usual budget guidance for a European holiday for a couple is $750 per person, per day. That number is significantly lower now, she added.
“The main change across all tours for us would be a broader client segment,” said Lim.
A blow to an already-struggling industry
The pandemic is a further blow to an industry that was already under pressure.
In a Q3 2019 GlobalData survey, only 17% of global respondents said they booked with an in-store travel agent. Despite this, travel agencies in Singapore have remained relatively resilient throughout the pandemic. According to TTG Asia, only 38 of the 137 travel agents that closed in the city-state between February 2020 and May 2021 cited the pandemic as a reason for ceasing operations.
This is largely thanks to the Singapore government’s efforts to support the local tourism industry. These include wage subsidies, waiving license fees, and allocating $320 million in vouchers for citizens to spend on local hotels and attractions.
All three Singapore-based agencies Insider spoke with said they did not downsize their teams, although pay cuts were part of all their business continuity plans.
Lim said Quotient Travel implemented a three-day workweek and pay cuts of up to 25% over the last 15 months. Tan and her husband (who is also her business partner) stopped drawing salaries for a year. At one point, Tan’s sales team pivoted into events programming and content marketing, while Lim said her company branched out into an online luxury jewellery store.
“It was especially challenging to have to show up each day without fail – through the bad times – ready to lead and prop up team morale and navigate such a precarious, uncertain environment. We were in full beta mode with no clarity on what might stick,” said Tan.
Still, the new experiences are a far cry from the revenue the companies usually rake in.
Tan said new experiences cover about 50% of Blue Sky Escapes’ typical revenue. Lim said Quotient Travel’s local tours account for less than 1% of its typical revenue.
Yap said the next six months will be particularly challenging as the government’s wage support scheme ends in September. She remains hopeful that some form of leisure travel will resume by the last quarter of this year, as at least three quarters of Singapore’s population is slated to be vaccinated by then.