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A month or so ago, national pride was palpable in Singapore. Its new $1.78 billion Jewel complex at Changi Airport was poised to open, after eight years in the making. An army of workers and technicians spent five years on-site, creating the 135,700 square metre, 10-storey elliptical dome with a strikingly graceful honeycombed skin of glass and steel.
Designed by the legendary Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, Jewel inhabits a dominant space next to the renovated terminal one and is connected to T2 and T3 via footbridges and the Changi monorail, and to T4 via shuttle bus.
Even for me, however, a member of the unofficial league of airport lovers, it was hard to understand why half a million Singaporeans had snapped up tickets to be among the first locals to explore Jewel, which is effectively a shopping mall with flight connections. But therein lies the story of how Singapore built a country around an airport, and continues to do so.
THE LITTLE COUNTRY THAT DID
The opening of Changi Airport, just over 25 years after Singapore was established as an independent nation, is among the five most important events in the city-state's history, as perceived by its citizens, according to a study by Singapore's Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).
A quarter of a million Singaporeans visited the airport in the first two weeks of its 1981 opening. "Singaporeans were understandably excited," IPS research analyst, Paveena Seah has written. "It heralded a new phase of socio-economic progress, connecting Singapore to rest of the world … today, Changi Airport is a physical emblem of Singapore's progress from third world to first."
The airport's importance lies in the fact Singapore is a trading nation without natural resources of its own. "So for Singapore to survive, it needed to look outwards," says John Roberts, Scientia Professor of marketing at the UNSW Sydney.
"Alongside Hong Kong, the nation's initial success was as a duty-free port. People went there because there was no sales tax nor duties. Both have a very proud history of being trading ports and that has continued."
Singapore's "geographically blessed" position on the Straits of Malacca, turned it into a hub, first for sea, then for air.
Of course, there are plenty of other Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern airport hubs but in the aviation space, Singapore stands out. Not only is Singapore Airlines continually touted as "world's most awarded" carrier, but for the past seven years, Changi Airport has been voted the best in the world in the Skytrax awards. It would be hard to find a traveller who has experienced it and doesn't concur.
Changi has already achieved things many other international airports do not even attempt, from the fun and fantastic, such as its butterfly garden and rooftop pool, to the stunningly functional – queue-free security screening, for example, and a sky rail that connects its terminals with clockwork consistency.
Airlines are also keen to fly into Changi. Just ask Qantas, which, in March 2018, re-routed its London flights via Singapore instead of Dubai, in response to customers voting with their neck pillows.
Changi's distinct advantage, however, actually lies with the locals. As Moshe Safdie says of Jewel: "It's a place that serves passengers, the [50,000] people who work in the airport ... and the people of Singapore. This is not just an airport facility. This is a Singapore facility."
A GLITTERING DESIGN FEAT
The light-filled, airy Jewel complex's main attraction is its 40-metre, seven-storey HSBC Rain Vortex – created by WET Design, of Bellagio fountains fame – which artfully and dramatically pours water from the rooftop's inverted oculus. At night, the vortex, which is the world's highest indoor waterfall, is host to an ooh-ah-inducing light show.
The waterfall is surrounded by the four-level, Shiseido Forest Valley where 1000 shrubs and 2000 trees have been planted. They have been gathered from across the world and conditioned for years in special warehouses so they will thrive in the Jewel environment. They sit in a labyrinth of walking paths and restful seating areas constructed of gorgeous lava stone quarried from Borobudur.
The complex also boasts 290 exquisite shops and eateries, handpicked to ensure Jewel is one of a kind, an IMAX theatre and a floor devoted to entertainment and activities. A unique climate-control system that attends to the comfort of both plants and humans, is just one of many invisible innovations conceived and created by a formidable co-operative of experts.
That's not to mention the facilities for flyers – Jewel is at an airport, after all. You can do early check-in here, enjoy the facilities of a business class-style lounge, stow bags, meet cruise transfers and even sleep, in a cool little hotel, YOTELAir.
THAT CAN-DO ATTITUDE
"Projects like this don't happen unless key people say 'we are going to do it'," Safdie says. And without the famed Singaporean can-do attitude, Changi Airport Group's Jewel might not have been built.
Even for Safdie – whose portfolio includes the city state's astounding Marina Bay Sands complex, with its three towers connected by a massive rooftop platform – Jewel is quite a feat.
"I've never been in a place that has this sense of scale," he says. "I've been in big buildings but this has an intimacy and the opposite: a kind of awesome grandeur. And grandeur with intimacy is maybe the hardest thing to do."
If the reported hour-long waits in queues for certain food and retail outlets over the Easter weekend are any indication, Singapore is impressed. Between 40 and 50 million people are expected to visit Jewel each year.
MIXING IT WITH THE LOCALS
"Don't underestimate the importance of having an airport with easy access to the city and CBD," says UNSW's Roberts, citing Changi's transport links and the fact that the airport journey can take as little as 15 minutes. This is particularly attractive compared to the isolation of airports such as Bangkok, Hong Kong and Dubai, for example.
Having an airport that is part of the fabric of non-travelling life is also unique to Singapore. For decades, students have travelled to Changi to study and hang out in its climate-controlled comfort.
These days, most Singaporeans have air-conditioned homes but still the students come. Families come to dine. Couples come to court. The elderly come to socialise. This sort of patronage has allowed the airport to attract all sorts of businesses and made it feel like a part of Singaporean society – an estimated 60 per cent of visitors are expected to be local.
"It's quite interesting to contrast Changi to Dubai," Roberts says. "In Dubai, money is no object – it's an incredibly sophisticated, expensive, modern, well-equipped airport. But what Dubai represents is what money can buy, whereas Singapore is what money plus people can buy."
On top of all this, Jewel by no means represents the completion of Changi. The next airport project is the ambitious Terminal 5, which has an estimated budget of $10.5 billion and is due to open in 2030.
THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
There is a Changi souvenir shop in Jewel where you can buy candles and room sprays that bring Changi's signature scent to your home. Is this Changi-mania going too far? After all, the main function of an airport is to get people on and off planes safely and efficiently.
"At Changi, our focus is always, what can we do to give passengers the best experience?" says Jayson Goh, managing director of Airport Operations. "How can we make the Changi experience personal, so our passengers say, 'There's something for me when I arrive at Changi'?"
Even moves to automation are, he claims, designed to "take friction out of the journey" and go hand-in-hand with the retail and entertainment delights. "Once you take away friction in a journey, passengers are left with a lot of time to enjoy the journey. That is a fundamental change.
"Of course, we still pay attention to basic airport operations and make sure we get those right. We aspire to continue to do well, so they know the experience in Changi is a lovable one."
Lovable, memorable and surprising are all words Goh uses to describe the impression towards which Changi Airport is working. "It's Singapore's first impression," he says, with a beaming smile. "We have already proved that an airport can be more than an airport, by thinking outside the box and paying attention when the customer tells us what they want."
HOW TO MAKE THE JEWEL SHINE FOR YOU
Jewel's collection of 200 retailers has been carefully curated to be like no other. It includes a number of local success stories, such as Supermama, for uniquely Singaporean porcelain, and Klosh, the stationery and gift store. It also has Southeast Asia's largest Nike store and the only Pokemon shop outside Japan.
Singaporeans are excited about Jewel marking the return of US chain Shake Shack to their island home (that's where the biggest queues are) but there are also plenty of exciting local eating options among the 90 outlets – it's like a crash course in the best the city state has to offer. Celebrity Singaporean chef Violet Oon, for example, has a stunning Peranakan restaurant at Jewel.
Jewel has early check-in facilities for 26 airlines,baggage storage for carry-on plus Electronic Tourist Refund kiosks to process GST refunds. Jewel is peppered with touch screens that provide a directory of shops, eateries and services as well as flight information. Simply scan your boarding pass or press the flight info tab.
Literally Jewel's crowning glory – a top-floor full of fun – Canopy Park is set to open in June and will be a super option for families in transit with kids. It features bouncing and walking nets, hedge and mirror mazes and spiralling tube slides set in a sculpted art installation. The big ticket attraction (and it's all ticketed and costs money) is the glass-bottom Canopy Bridge over Jewel's ravine.
Singapore is fast becoming a leading hub for fly-cruising in Southeast Asia. Changi Airport Group is working with the maritime terminals and cruise lines to promote it as a hub and Jewel's Changi Lounge is a big part of the strategy. The lounge is where fly-cruise or fly-ferry passengers can drop off baggage for transfer and access co-ordinated ground transportation to and from ships.
Singapore Airlines flies daily between various Australian airports and Changi. See singaporeair.com
You need at least three hours before or between flights to spend any time at Jewel, given it's land side and transferring to terminal gates may take 30 minutes. It can, of course, be visited as part of a Singapore stay outside your flight times and be aware of its popularity among locals.
The Changi Crowne Plaza, adjacent to T1, continues to be voted the world's best airport hotel. It's a great place to stay if you're planning a long day and night at Jewel. Rooms from $250. See crowneplaza.com
Julietta Jameson travelled to Singapore as a guest of Changi Airport Group.
FIVE MORE AIRPORTS THAT ARE REALLY TAKING OFF
ISTANBUL NEW AIRPORT, TURKEY
When it's finished in 2027, the high-tech Istanbul New Airport is expected to be the largest airport in the world, with six runways and capacity for 200 million passengers a year. Turkish Airlines already flies to more countries than any other, no less than 120 of which are within three hours. See igairport.com
BEIJING DAXING INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, CHINA
When it opens in September, Beijing's 70-hectare hub will be able to claim the world's largest single terminal building. The Zaha Hadid Architects-designed airport will welcome 100 million passengers a year with a high-speed Gao Tie railway ferrying them throughout a starfish-shaped facility. See english.bjdx.gov.cn
ABU DHABI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
The much-anticipated Midfield Terminal Building looks set to open in the last quarter of 2019. Built with capacity for 45 million passengers a year, it's central to a strategy to bring more visitors to Abu Dhabi. Problems with home-airline Etihad, which is being restructured, and construction delays have marred the architecturally impressive project. See abudhabiairport.ae
INCHEON AIRPORT, SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA
Incheon's T2, which opened last year as part of a $7 billion expansion plan, has indoor gardens and waterfalls as well as some spectacular art and light installations. Korean Air, plus a handful of others, operate out of T2 while a further 86 airlines use T1. Incheon is the world's No.1 in duty-free sales and projects aimed at increasing the airport's capacity will continue until 2023, when passenger numbers are forecast to reach 100 million annually. See airport.kr
HANEDA AIRPORT INTERNATIONAL, TOKYO, JAPAN
The lead-up to the 2020 Olympics is bringing expansions and upgrades to the airport that is many a Tokyo traveller's favourite because it's closer to the city than Narita. It's also fun, with the Edo Market, a shopping and eating precinct themed around ancient Tokyo street life, and the Tokyo Pop Town, which includes a planetarium, slot-car racing and flight simulators. See haneda-airport.jp
THE RUB ON THE HUBS: CHANGI'S MAIN COMPETITORS
(For Australian travellers)
DUBAI INTERNATIONAL, DUBAI
PASSENGERS 90 million a year
WHO FLIES THERE Direct from Australia: Emirates. Others include: Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Thai, China Southern and South African Airways.
BEST THING The 128 smart gates, free Wi-Fi and lots of mobile phone charging stations. The busy Emirates lounge, despite the volume of people it deals with, is comfortable and bright with plentiful showers and excellent food and beverages.
WORST THING Lack of seating and seats with armrests mean lots of people sleeping or sprawling on terminal floors.
WHAT'S NEXT Dubai International's Strategic Plan 2020 has seen upgrades and expansions at the current facility, including a recent runway rebuild. Plans for expanding the second airport, Al Maktoum, which opened in 2013, would have seen it become the home of Emirates, with capacity for 120 million passengers annually. The plans for Al Maktoum have been delayed.
HONG KONG INTERNATIONAL, HONG KONG
PASSENGERS 74.7 million a year
WHO FLIES THERE Direct from Australia: Qantas, Hong Kong Airlines, Virgin Australia, Cathay Pacific. Others include: Singapore Airlines, Bangkok Airways, Emirates and Etihad.
BEST THING It's perhaps Changi's nearest competitor for stuff to do, with beautiful architecture, activity zones, serious food offerings, excellent lounges and an IMAX theatre. The Cathay Pacific Business Lounge is terrific.
WORST THING Limited hours of food service, despite winning awards in this space. The airport authority is in the process of putting into place contracts that ensure its operators open 24 hours.
WHAT'S NEXT The 20-year-old facility is undergoing an estimated $25 billion expansion that will include aT1 Annex, which is due this year and designed to include extended retail, a rooftop garden, plus a 28-metre-high bridge-cum-observation-deck under which planes will pass.
SUVARNABHUMI AIRPORT, BANGKOK
PASSENGERS 60 million a year
WHO FLIES THERE Direct from Australia: Thai Airways, Emirates, Qantas and Jetstar; plus 34 others.
BEST THING What Suvarnabhumi (it's pronounced "su-wan-na-poom") lacks in personality, it makes up for in navigability. It's huge and all under one roof, but it has 107 moving walkways, 102 elevators and 83 escalators to help you along.
WORST THING Terrible and limited food and duty-free offerings. Controversially, one company, King Power, has a monopoly on what's on offer at Suvarnabhumi. That licence is up for tender in 2020.
WHAT'S NEXT Opened in 2006, the facility is already over capacity and it was built to cater for 45 million passengers a year. Expansions to be completed in 2020 will help capacity meet reality. Further development phases running up to 2030 aim to cater for 150 million passengers.
NEW TOM BRADLEY INTERNATIONAL TERMINAL, LOS ANGELES, US
PASSENGERS 87 million a year through LAX overall.
WHO FLIES THERE Direct from Australia: Qantas, Virgin Australia, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines; plus 41 others.
BEST THING This airport is massively committed to improvement and its food is notable. Los Angeles has become a serious foodie city and the airport authority set out to ensure Tom Bradley reflects that.
WORST THING The traffic. An estimated 50 per cent of passengers access or leave the airport by car. The new Automated People Mover – an elevated transit system that connects the LA Metro with the airport – is aimed at alleviating congestion.
WHAT'S NEXT Los Angeles World Airports is in the midst of a massive $20 billion renovation and major infrastructure development, projected to last until the end of 2023. See flylax.com
PERTH AIRPORT, WESTERN AUSTRALIA
PASSENGERS 4.3 million international, 9.3 million domestic a year
WHO FLIES THERE Qantas, Tigerair, Virgin Australia, Jetstar, Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Emirates, Air New Zealand, Scoot, Garuda Indonesia, Air Asia X, Thai Airways, Cathay Pacific, China Southern, British Airways.
BEST THING Proximity to Bali (three hours, 40 minutes), Malaysia (five hours, 30 minutes) and other Asian destinations. Since March 2018, Perth is also the start and finish point for non-stop Qantas flights from Australia to Britain, a game changer for the airport and Australian travellers.
WORST THING Qantas has created some fabulous facilities for its QF9 passengers, but the rest of the airport leaves a lot to be desired.
WHAT'S NEXT A $2.5 billion expansion program includes a much larger and sophisticated International Terminal (T1), another runway, additional taxiways and gates for wide-bodied aircraft, plus a new Qantas facility. The expansion should be complete by 2027. See perthairport.com.au
See also: The world's best airports for 2019 named