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The World of Airports: No. 2 The Oh-So-Simple Free Bus Tour
February 17, 2013 - Ray Tsuchiyama
Imagine yourself in a strange airport, in transit back to your home town, and you keep looking at your watch, and five hours seems like eternity, and you look around to fight boredom.
With now many West Coast direct flights, Kahului is not really a transit airport.
Until the 1980s Honolulu and Anchorage were mid-Pacific re-fueling airports for many Mainland flights to Tokyo and other Asian destinations, so Honolulu was a stop-over to Asia for many Mainland travelers -- but no longer, with many direct over-flights of our mid-Pacific string of islands (ironically, it is often difficult to find direct flights from Hawai'i to many leading Asian cities, unlike San Francisco or even Vancouver, B.C.). But there are still a few transit passengers at the Honolulu Airport, wandering about the open air areas.
Singapore has developed into a huge hub for travelers from Europe to other Asian cities and beyond to Australia/New Zealand – and for others from Northeast Asia traveling southward to South Asia, like India and westward to the Middle East, including the “haj” or the Muslim religious journey to Mecca and other holy sites (I became well-acquainted with Singapore’s Changi Airport during my many trips to Thailand, Australia and India.).
So perhaps this story may not be easily applicable to Kahului’s tiny airport with the Starbucks coffee shop and the hot dog stand, but in the context of how to develop tourism in an efficient customer-centric manner, it may strike readers as “it really sounds simple, but it must be amazingly difficult to execute”.
At Changi Airport in Singapore, a tiny city-state with a population of 5 million people (or five Hawai’i’s), if you indeed have five hours until your flight, you can obtain a quick visa (for citizens from countries with visa upon visit reciprocity) to enter Singapore and can join a two-hour guided tour that runs throughout the day (and evening), sponsored by Changi Airport and Singapore Airlines (that is, it is totally totally free -- so a visitor thinks "I've got 5 hours to kill, why not it's free." The visitor may add "Is there a catch?").
Now, this is a brilliant idea, since almost people with several hours in-transit at a strange,foreign airport would just read a paperback novel or stroll around the shops or read restaurant menus* -- but the Singaporean government targets this “transit” group as potential future tourists and has organized a meticulous system to take these airport travelers around Singapore and back to Changi Airport just in time to board their flights. Of course all travelers are leery leaving the airport and missing their flights –think of the second-by-second precision of: 1. Easy Visa Stamping 2. Easy Luggage Storage 3. Easy “finding” where the bus stop is 4. Friendly Tour Guides with Communication Skills 5. Efficient and Comfortable Bus Ride, on Time, to all the stops, then returns to the Airport exactly on time 6. Easy Re-Entry back into the Airport, Luggage Pick-up, if required 7. Boarding Flight – all within 5 Hours. I hate to say this but imagine a Transit City Tour if you are at New York City's dismal and chaotic Kennedy Airport or even Honolulu Airport.
This Changi Airport transit group can board a bus on a “Heritage Tour” (there are several different tours, including evening “night life” schedules) with a stopover at the Merlion Park (visitors can see the iconic marble lion statue with water flowing out of its mouth), before proceeding to the Colonial District, Central Business District and Chinatown or Little India. The bus ride to Merlion Park offers vistors a “panoramic view of Singapore's cityscape and landmarks like Marina Bay Sands, Singapore Flyer and Gardens by the Bay” (yes, I am quoting from the Web site: you get the idea).
Then the bus takes the captured transit group to the Fountain of Wealth (world's largest fountain) and one of Singapore's icons – the Esplanade. As the Web site extolls: “The tour will bring you through a discovery journey where you will have a glimpse of a unique blend of East and West, tradition and modernity. It will be a splendid way for you to explore the history, culture and lifestyle of multi-racial Singapore while in your transit. . . The Esplanade is Singapore's premier arts destination. With its spiky glass facade which resembles a popular local fruit – the durian, the Esplanade is a striking icon by the waterfront.”
After the tour, we can imagine Changi Airport transit visitors, thrilled with their tour, and talking excitedly on their flights departing Singapore about a visit back to Singapore, as well as extolling Singapore’s great sights to their families, co-workers, and friends back in London, Sydney, Tokyo or San Francisco.
Ultimately, Hawai’i needs new ideas (simple ones that are very viral are best) to compete with many other tourist destinations promoting themselves for the visitor dollar. In the new age of Social Media/SNS, the best kind of promotion is done not by spending dollars for advertising, but an entire “community” spontaneously writing positive reviews about a new product.
As a recent Hawai’i Business magazine January 2013 cover title said so succinctly: “It’s Tourism, Stupid”. During the past two decades Hawai’i’s (and Maui’s) economy has become almost totally dependent on tourism as the economic engine.
Hawai’i Business magazine Top 250 executives exhort Hawai’i as a tourism industry leader (yet we always sense in the back of our minds the fragility of tourism, given the visitor downturn in fall 2013 and the slow agonizing four-year return to “normal” hotel occupancy levels by 2012) – what are the innovations in tourism developed in Hawai’i that could be taught to a country like Singapore, once in the middle of nowhere, an economic backwater up to the 1970s, and now with a thriving diversified economy (high tech, trade, finance, tourism), the winner of the “Top Intelligent Community of the Year” award?
*I recall a Changi Airport sign: "Same Prices As High Street" -- which translated into our English, means that the airport menu prices were not gouging travelers with no other dining options, but rather the same as in downtown Singapore. An interesting ad about how the airport was trying to counter travelers' perceptions about airport restaurants, or "reading our minds".
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