King, queen, student or tourist... there's a welcome for everyone
The skyline in Singapore is constantly being redrawn: the pictures I took this August will be redundant in a year, by which time another skyscraper will have clawed its way on to the jagged horizon. But at lower altitudes there are constant changes, too. Within the past two years, a decrepit old residence to the north of the Kampong Glam has been resurrected. The Yellow Mansion - as it was and now, freshly painted, is - has become the Malay Heritage Centre, celebrating links with the sprawling peninsula to the north-west. But it inadvertently also contains a gentle revelation about the place of tourists in the international pecking order.
Every day, you learn from the welcome screens, an average of 3,000 visitors turn up at the attraction. You are also given a breakdown of what sort of people they are: "Kings, queens, presidents, ministers, students and." Yes, and? ".and tourists."
Visitors to the city-state may be miffed to think that they get even lower billing than students, but the reality is that Singapore bestows the tourist with a lot more status than many places. Indeed, even the humble transit passenger - surely the least promising prospect for any destination - is shown a good time. If you belong to the subspecies of tourist that happens to be changing planes at Changi airport, with at least five hours between flights and at a sensible time of day, you can go to the desk in Terminal 1 or 2 marked "Free Singapore Tour" and ask for, guess what, a free tour of Singapore. Indeed, you can choose from one of three two-hour tours: "Colonial", "Cultural" or "Lifestyle". A well-rehearsed routine gets everyone on the right bus for the drive into the city, for a stroll or even a bumboat ride on the Singapore River.
What is in it for the airport, and the city-state? By giving tired travellers a flavour of Singapore, the authorities believe that these temporary visitors will acquire a taste and come back for more.
CHANGI AIRPORT has, since its inception in the Seventies, constantly strived to offer the traveller more. Yet two years ago, the airport's managers began to ask how they could provide less. The airport that has won countless "world's best" awards needed a terminal that in many ways was the opposite of the traditional Changi experience. The reason: the no-frills revolution that has caught on in South-east Asia as fervently as in Britain. The easy-Jet and Ryanair model that introduced low-cost air travel to Europe demands simple, cheap facilities without the expensive sophistication of elaborate baggage systems.
Singapore's "Budget Terminal" is located a discreet distance from the fullservice product of Terminals 1 and 2, with a shuttle bus connection. The no-frills terminal has been colonised by Tiger Airways, 49 per cent owned by Singapore Airlines. But other low-cost carriers, such as JetStar, have remained behind: they evidently feel that allowing passengers to stroll around the rooftop cactus garden, or have a swim and a drink once airside, are more alluring than what one aviation insider called "a glorified shed".
As with all things in travel, it is good to have a choice. And if you happen to be a hard core traveller for whom even the Budget Terminal seems too opulent, then head across the island to the closest Singapore has to a Ryanair-style airport: an air force base named Seletar in the north of Singapore Island, which has minimal facilities and, at present, scheduled flights only to and from Tioman Island of the east coast of Malaysia.
IN WELL-ORDERED Singapore, every taxi has an indicator on the roof showing its status. "TAXI", in bright green, signifies that the vehicle is available for hire. A red "HIRED", you will not be amazed to learn, indicates a passenger is on board and the meter is running. But I chuckle every time I see the third category, for a cab that is en route to a call: a dazzling cluster of LEDs that yell "BUSY"!
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