Sentosa Offers Another Side of Singapore

By Beverly Beyette

Los Angeles Times

SINGAPORE ~ From inside the gaping mouth of the Merlion, nine stories above ground, I surveyed the island of Sentosa and, across the harbor, the skyline of Singapore.

The Merlion – half fish (as in mermaid) and half lion (as in the Lion City) – is the mythological guardian of Singapore. This 121-foot-tall statue stands watch over Sentosa, a 1,230-acre island just off Singapore’s southern coast that will be an oasis from the urban uproar.

It has a ringside seat to some financial fireworks: About US$7.5 billion in investment is expected here in hopes of making it a tourist destination.

Sentosa, just 15 minutes from the heart of the city of Singapore, once was called Pulau Blakang Mati, which translates loosely as “island of those who die behind,” possibly a reference to a malaria epidemic that decimated its population in the 1840s. The switch in 1972 to Sentosa, which means “tranquility” in Malay, hints at the changes developers hope for as it works to position itself as a destination and not just a side trip from the capital.

Today, Sentosa has one foot in fantasyland and one foot in a future in which Singapore embraces, well, Southern California, with a gated community of luxury homes and a yacht marina. As I discovered on a visit here in September, it’s moving ahead, but for now, it has a split personality and remains a destination that’s still on the verge of achieving its potential.

As Asia continues to attract tourists, it will have to pull out even more stops. Although Singapore tourism exceeded its goal in 2006 – 9.7 million visitors generated $8.1 billion – it faces growing competition in Asia for tourist dollars. Macao, with its eye on the newly prosperous and gambling-enchanted Chinese, has gone casino crazy. Now Singapore, which long banned casinos, has capitulated to the trend. Two casinos have been approved, and Sentosa will have one of them, a golden opportunity for the resort island, where management appears poised to seize the moment.

Singapore became independent in 1965 after more than a century under British rule and a few years as part of Malaysia.

A short bridge links Sentosa, one of Singapore’s larger outer islands, to the mainland. Many of Sentosa’s day-tripper attractions – a few of which give kitsch a bad name – are grouped at its western end. At the eastern end are the luxurious Sentosa Resort & Spa, serious restaurants and two 18-hole golf courses. (Sentosa hosts the Singapore Open.)

And at the eastern tip is 290-acre Sentosa Cove, the gated community with a yacht marina and tennis courts. Darrell Metzger, chief executive of Sentosa Leisure Group, hails from Newport Beach, California, and has a resume that includes 10 years with Disneyland.

Sentosa the island, once a British military outpost under colonial rule, has been a work in progress since the government undertook its transformation into a tropical resort 35 years ago. That’s when the Sentosa Development Corp. – now called Sentosa Leisure Group – was established under the Ministry of Trade and Industry to develop, manage and promote Sentosa as a holiday resort.

There have been ups and downs. By the late ’90s, Sentosa had a reputation as overpriced and underwhelming, with musty attractions such as a rare-stone museum (the Coralarium), Volcanoland (now extinct) and Dinosaurland (also extinct).

When he came onboard in 2000, Metzger was faced with what he calls a “downward spiral” – a paucity of new investment in the face of declining investor confidence, together with dipping attendance and a perception that Sentosa was an expensive tourist trap.

“All the attractions had not been updated in 10 years,” he said. “You can’t run a family destination and not put any money in it.”

Metzger said 21 underperforming operations were removed from the island in 2000 and 2001 and replaced with such proven brands as Subway, Ben & Jerry’s and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. “We still have room for improvement,” Metzger acknowledged.

The plan is to develop only 30 percent of Sentosa, and the rest – which includes secondary rainforest and walking trails – will be preserved as greenbelt. There also is native wildlife to protect, including rhesus macaques that wander into hotel lobbies and peacocks that can halt traffic.

Cars are allowed on Sentosa, but they are somewhat superfluous. The intra-island transportation, which includes buses and beach trains, is free except for the express light rail. A Sentosa bus leaves from a station adjacent to Singapore’s VivoCity; there’s also a cable car to carry visitors from the mainland. (Dinner aloft can be arranged.)

A few Sentosa attractions, including the beaches, are free. Ticket prices for paid attractions range from $2.50 for the Skyride to $12 for Underwater World, a good aquarium where I was enthralled with the leafy sea dragons, close kin of seahorses.

Some attractions are less compelling. Entering Merlion, I was advised, “Pretend you’re an 8-year-old” – an 8-year-old who could still be beguiled by mermaids and a dragon with glowing red eyes.

But the history buff in me enjoyed Fort Siloso, where the British made a stand against the Japanese in 1942. It has cannons and tunnels and a not-quite-convincing diorama depicting Louis Mountbatten accepting the Japanese surrender in Singapore in 1945.

Initially developed with government financial aid, Sentosa has relied on income from real-estate development and tourism to become economically self-sufficient. Sales of upscale Sentosa Cove properties, first offered in the fall of 2003, have brought in $800 million.

After a slow start, “it’s been hot cakes,” said Gurjit Singh, director of property for Sentosa Leisure Group. Single-family home sites of 7,000 to 10,000 square feet have been selling for $3 million to $10 million. Eight single-family homes, 14 town houses and 200 condos have been completed.

Sentosa Cove is the only place in Singapore where non-permanent residents can buy land; 60 percent of buyers are foreign – almost all from Asia – and the rest are local. (Local law bars foreigners from buying land in Singapore unless they can show assets of $13 million and deposit at least $3 million in a Singapore bank.)

Developers hope Sentosa Cove will be sold out by December and fully developed with 2,500 residences by 2010. “This is a lifestyle,” said Robin Goh, Sentosa Leisure Group’s corporate communications director. But Singaporeans weren’t sure at first.

Although it’s only 15 minutes from the heart of Singapore, Goh said city dwellers “couldn’t comprehend what it was like living off the mainland” – until they saw the views of water, golf greens and skyline.

Thanks largely to key investments, Sentosa has fast-tracked by two years its 10-year, multibillion-dollar masterplan for full development of the island and a nearby group of smaller islands. By 2010, Sentosa is to be fully developed.

That projection includes Resorts World at Sentosa, a 120-acre family resort and casino for which a developer has recently been chosen.

Recent improvements to the island include the newly opened Sentosa Express light rail, which whisks riders to the island in four minutes from a station within Singapore’s new waterfront VivoCity mega-mall, which has a multiplex cinema, multiple dining venues and a plethora of retailers including Brooks Brothers, Bebe, Esprit and Nautica. Coming to Sentosa in mid-April is Songs of the Sea, a nightly fire, water, light and laser extravaganza. There are 14 restaurants, 15 fast-food places and seven beach bars. (I had pizza on the beach at Trapizza, a pasta lunch at upscale Il Lido and a fish dinner at the Cliff at the Sentosa Resort & Spa, and all were very good.)

Sentosa has four hotels with a total of 932 hotel rooms in a range of prices, with the Sentosa Resort & Spa at the top end. Three more are in the works – the Westin at the Cove, the 121-room Amara Sanctuary Resort (mid-2007) and the 171-room Capella Singapore (mid-2008). Resorts World’s six hotels, including a Hard Rock, will add 1,830 rooms.

And where might those visitors come from? Sentosa is banking partly on a growing visitor base from China and India. With 5.2 million visitors in fiscal year 2005-06, Sentosa is “on track,” said Singh, to reach its goal of 8 million by 2010.

For Sentosa to succeed, the population needs to find pleasure in relaxation, a veritable sea change for the country. “In Asia, leisure was never a priority,” Singh said. But Singaporeans’ hard work has paid off, he said, and they “are in a better position to enjoy having money.”

But, he emphasized, the model for Sentosa is neither Las Vegas nor Macao, the new gambling mecca.

Although gambling – including horseracing and lotteries – has long been legal in Singapore, casinos were barred until 2005, when the government green-lighted two casino complexes.

In May, Las Vegas Sands Corp. won a bid to develop a $3.6-billion casino-resort-retail complex, Marina Bay Sands, on a 60-acre waterfront site in southern Singapore. It’s to open in 2009.

Malaysia’s Genting International, with its sister company, Star Cruises, was tapped in December to develop the family oriented Resorts World at Sentosa. It will include high-end retail, a convention center, the world’s largest oceanarium, a water ride and a casino. Construction is to begin this year, with the resort to be operational by early 2010.

The developer has pledged an investment of $3.2 billion, including a $1-billion Universal Studios Singapore attraction with a DreamWorks digital animation studio.

Sentosa hopes Resorts World will benefit the island’s peripheral attractions and encourage them to keep improving, doing what Gurjit Singh calls “raising the fun quotient.”

If the Merlion and other attractions get the message, Sentosa just may achieve its potential. If Singapore’s rise to world prominence is any indication, Sentosa is a sure bet.

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