Money down, the sky's the limit

Two massive resorts could help Singapore shake its boring image for good, writes Anthony Dennis.

It's the middle of a typically hot and humid day and, what with my shirt stuck to my back like an oversized self-adhesive stamp on a manila envelope, I'm struggling with the concept of Singapore as a "secretly cool city". But standing here, staring up at a trio of glass towers, each identical and 55-storeys high with a roof composed of a massive platform supposedly large enough to accommodate 4½ A380s, I'm awed enough to entertain the idea.

In a city-state built on an island that's a fraction of the size of greater Sydney but with half-a-million more people, land prices are sky-high. So where else do you build Singapore's latest park but in the sky itself? SkyPark, as it's known, is literally set to become Singapore's crowning glory.

It almost miraculously sits atop the three hotel towers serving as the centrepiece of the new Marina Bay Sands "integrated resort" development. It's set to welcome its first international visitors in a few months and, along with competitor Resorts World Sentosa, will be the first of two casinos ever allowed in Singapore.

I'm on a visit to Singapore and I've arranged to inspect the city state's two newest "mega-projects", invariably referred to by the euphemism "integrated resort", since the casino component is only a part of the entertainment provided.

My visit coincides with the "soft opening" of Resorts World, a popular tourist island off Singapore's south coast, beating Marina Bay Sands, which is still under construction but with plans to open the first phase of its resort around April. Although the resorts are the antithesis of each other in style terms, you can sense that, with the stakes so high after such massive investments, the competition will be intense.

In 2004, determined to bolster tourism and to replace jobs lost as manufacturing moved to other countries with cheaper labour costs, the Singapore government awarded the Las Vegas Sands group the country's first casino licence, for Marina Bay Sands. Later, a second casino licence, for what was to become Resorts World, was awarded to the Malaysian company Genting Group.

Now Singapore is hoping that the Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World will once and for all demolish the perception the city state is an unexciting place to visit, finally establishing it as a legitimate, longer-stay destination. The average stay of a visitor to Singapore is just three nights and tourism authorities will be hoping the new developments prompt an increase.

Aun Koh, a Singaporean publisher, speaks of Singapore as "a secretly cool city" that has much more to offer beyond chilli crab, Orchard Road, Little India and Chinatown. He has the perspective of having lived in New York for many years, pointing out that, increasingly, the typical visitor to Singapore is an affluent twentysomething, here to check out the plethora of chic restaurants, bars and boutique hotels that easily matches any other city in Asia.


"Singapore is already a hip destination," Koh says. "The problem is that a lot of people - and even many institutions and publications - have made it their mission to try to cast Singapore as the world's most boring city.

"The funny thing is that most of the people propagating this admittedly catchy perspective haven't been here for years. Singapore is far from boring. In fact, it's pretty amazing and dynamic these days, what with the [formula one grand prix] and the new casinos, among other things."

Back at Marina Bay Sands, the statistics keep rolling on ... the SkyPark's superstructure is suspended 200 metres above ground level and weighs 7000 tonnes. Made up of 14 individual parts, it's 340 metres in length, longer than the Eiffel Tower is high. When completed just the SkyPark alone will be home to the mandatory world-class restaurants, multiple swimming pools, tropical gardens and an open-air public observation deck.

The three towers, which will accommodate 2500 hotel rooms and suites with uninterrupted views of Singapore and the Singapore Strait between it and Malaysia, are billed as architectural marvels in their own right, even sans the lid. In places, the towers slope at 26 degrees, reputedly making them among the most complex buildings ever constructed - indeed, the Marina Bay Sands manages to achieve the impossible and eclipse even Dubai's wildest engineering concepts.

With an investment of $S5.25 billion ($4.26 billion), Marina Bay Sands is, along with the more populist Resorts World, one of the two most expensive casino complexes ever built. Marina Bay Sands is so striking, even in its unfinished state, that it could be poised to eclipse, or at least challenge, Changi Airport and Raffles as Singapore's singularly most famous landmarks. The operators of Resorts World are predicting between 12 and 13 million visitors in the first year.

(Photos: Singapore's new mega-resorts)

In terms of attracting international visitors, Singapore will have its competition cut out. The president and chief executive of Marina Bay Sands, Thomas Arasi, says Singapore and Macau, where there has been a similarly monumental investment in casino resorts, can co-exist in an already competitive Asian tourism market (Las Vegas Sands group also operates Macau Sands, which it opened in 2004).

"Singapore and Macau are culturally and geographically distinct markets," he says. "Singapore is in a strategic location and is a global destination. Macau is important in north Asia and attracts many mainland Chinese tourists. Singapore has an established reputation as a leading tourism and convention destination as gaming is a brand-new industry here. Marina Bay Sands will further boost Singapore's status as a leading travel destination offering new experiences for visitors."

Arasi points out the casino at Marina Bay Sands is just one component of an overall development, occupying less than 3 per cent of the total floor area. He believes visitors will be attracted to Marina Bay Sands by its restaurants, stage shows and blue-chip retail. You imagine that some tourists will spend their entire stay in Singapore at Marina Bay Sands or Resorts World, which are virtual cities within a city.

On the other side of town, Resorts World Sentosa is pitched more firmly at the mainstream market. It features the region's first Universal Studios and no fewer than six hotels and resorts, including an updated Hard Rock Hotel. Universal Studios Singapore is made up of a variety of attractions such as Battlestar Galactica, "the world's tallest pair of duelling roller-coasters", Jurassic Park Rapids Adventure and Hollywood, a re-creation of the famous Los Angeles boulevard with its own walk of fame.

In a city where eating shares double-billing with shopping as the national pastimes, food is a big drawcard at the two resorts, with Resorts World securing France's Joel Robuchon as its main celebrity chef.

At Marina Bay Sands they're preparing to welcome Australia's leading chef, Sydney-based Tetsuya Wakuda, who has signed up for a restaurant, along with a host of other celebrity cooks such as Wolfgang Puck from Los Angeles, Guy Savoy from Paris and Daniel Boulud from New York.

The Lion King will be the resident show at the 4000-seat Marina Bay Sands Theatres.