In the minds of many meeting planners and event organisers, the best thing for people to do in Singapore is spend most of their time indoors. During the day there are the necessary meetings and conferences to attend in the city’s many hotels and conference centres. At night, there are exciting bars, innovative restaurants, and a chance for a flutter at the gaming table for bored delegates suddenly experiencing freedom. Indeed, in 2011 about 3.2 million international visitors – around a quarter of the Lion City’s total – came expressly to attend a meeting, event or conference.
If, however, the focus is to be outdoor activities, Singapore is not a place that immediately springs to mind. Its brand is that of a lively, bustling city rather than a steamy jungle teeming with exotic wildlife. Robert Guy, managing director for Singapore and Malaysia of Destination Asia, says: “Typically Singapore is considered for programmes that are looking at lively city-based activities. Regarding ‘nature incentive’ programmes, I have not seen a situation where nature is the main focus of any event held here.”
When people are looking for a nature-related event, Destination Asia sends them to places like Langkawi or the island of Borneo. Langkawi, for example, offers eagle viewing and reef snorkelling, while Sabah has the Sepilok orangutan sanctuary and exciting river trips to view exotic proboscis monkeys in their native jungle habitat.
While Singapore may not have as much “nature” to offer as some of its larger neighbours, it would be wrong to simply write the territory off as being merely a glass-and-concrete jungle devoid of any green escapes. Singapore’s plentiful natural assets include parks and gardens for sedate walks, nature reserves filled with – admittedly small – wildlife, and plenty of outdoor options for sweaty team-building activities.
Jeannie Lim, executive director, exhibitions, conferences, conventions and meetings at the Singapore Tourism Board, says: “Despite rapid modernisation and urbanisation, Singapore has always dedicated resources to plan continuously for greenery, not only to provide relief from high-density urban living, but also to provide both citizens and tourists with accessible and attractive lush and landscaped spaces in the form of parks.”
Lim points out that Singapore is one of only two cities in the world to have a significant area of primary rainforest within its boundaries – the other city being Rio de Janeiro. According to naturalist David Bellamy, who may have exaggerated slightly, the 164-hectare Bukit Timah Nature Reserve – just 12 kilometres from the city centre – contains more species of flora than the entire North American continent combined.
Indeed, destination management companies (DMCs) are beginning to leverage Singapore’s natural assets by offering outdoor events and excursions as part of its itineraries. Guy says: “There is a small but growing interest in nature-related activities, in particular those that have a physical element to them. I am talking about bike riding and light hiking as part of the event. It is perfect to have an activity that can fit into a half-day.”
The outdoors can be a natural fit for team-building events. Guy says: “Everyone loves to have outdoor team events in a particularly beautiful tropical environment. This is particularly true when participants attend during their home country’s winter season.”
Team building under the sun
For the very active, dragon boat racing is always a winner. According to Guy, it offers an interesting activity that anyone can do, that everyone can watch and where there is a team-like competitive environment.
Singapore’s Pulau Ubin, a small island off the eastern coast, is another popular place for outdoor activities, with a rural atmosphere that can be experienced by intrepid hikers or cyclists. One innovative option on the island is kayaking through its mangroves accompanied by experienced guides. This is an opportunity to see the unique flora and fauna of mangrove swamps from a very different point of view.
Other fun outdoor offerings include Forest Adventure, a treetop adventure course consisting of 34 different obstacles including bridges, trapezes, logs, and four giant zip lines flying over Bedok Reservoir, a man-made lake in the eastern part of Singapore.
The MegaZip Adventure Park on the island of Sentosa, just off the south coast, brings together activities such as para-jumping, zip-lining and a ropes adventure course so that companies can go to just one place to do an assortment of varied activities.
Of course, getting all hot and sweaty isn’t always what people want to do, especially if they haven’t spent as much time in the gym as they should have. This is not a problem, as there is no shortage of gentler options that still allow middle-aged middle managers to get an impressive looking tan.
The parks and gardens of Singapore are already being used by local companies for their team-building activities, notes Chia Seng Jiang, parks director at the National Parks Board. Chia says: “Our parks provide a diversity of recreational experiences, and offer excellent opportunities for group corporate functions like family days, retreats and team-building activities in an outdoor setting. The Singapore Botanic Gardens, East Coast Park, HortPark and Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park are some popular parks for such activities.”
For a bit more excitement, stalwart offerings such as Singapore Zoo, the Night Safari and the Jurong Bird Park offer a chance to get up close to animals. The word “zoo” conjures images of unhappy animals in small cages, but these award-winning venues bear no resemblance to this. Set in natural-looking environments with many of the animals having space to wander about, a few hours at the zoo is a pleasant alternative to Singapore’s air-conditioned malls.
For close encounters of the subaquatic kind, Underwater World in Singapore allows visitors to walk through an 83-metre-long tunnel with sharks and rays swimming above and around the tunnel. It can even organise opportunities for people to feed the rays themselves, or dive with the sharks. Grace Ng, deputy director of sales and marketing of Underwater World Singapore, says: “Over the years, Underwater World Singapore has hosted various events at our underwater tunnel, including product launches, company dinners in the Tunnel, dinner with sharks, and corporate team-building camps.” The “Dive with the Sharks” programme was featured on the Travel Channel online as one of the best spots to swim with sharks in 2005 and 2009, while the “Living in the Ocean Sleepover” programme was selected by the Singapore Tourism Board as one of the three finalists for the 2012 Best Enrichment Experience Award.
For those who prefer flora to fauna, Singapore’s Botanic Gardens is a 74-hectare green space just outside Orchard Road, Singapore’s main shopping belt. A pleasant walk along the tree-lined paths in the morning or evening is an excellent way to recharge. Within the Botanic Gardens lies an impressive six-hectare tract of primary rainforest, though the main attraction is the National Orchid Garden. This particular location is home to more than 1,000 species of orchid, as well as 2,000 hybrids of the flowering plant.
Attractions like the zoo and the Botanic Gardens are man-made and, of course, look and feel like it. An alternative is Singapore’s nature reserves, the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve has primary rainforest and trails for gentle walks amid lush vegetation and chattering troops of long-tailed macaques. Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently developed a theory of evolution through natural selection in the 19th century, visited Singapore and at Bukit Timah captured more than 700 species of beetle, many of them new to science. Even today, some 150 years later, new species are still being discovered here.
Another popular place to visit is the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Singapore’s first designated wetland nature reserve. Among other things, it is a major stopping-off point for northern birds migrating south for the winter between September and March.
Both Bukit Timah and Sungei Buloh have paths that allow gentle walks to take in the scenery, and are best visited in the company of experienced guides who can point out interesting flora and spot cunningly camouflaged wildlife.
Singapore is a city that constantly reinvents itself, so it will come as no surprise to learn that just last year, two major new nature-themed attractions opened: Marine Life Park and Gardens by the Bay.
Marine Life Park at Resorts World Sentosa bills itself as the world’s largest oceanarium. The S.E.A. Aquarium houses more than 100,000 marine animals from over 800 species, all of them swimming in some 60 million litres of water. According to Noel Hawkes, vice-president of channel development and trade relations at Resorts World Sentosa, the aquarium’s centrepiece is the Open Ocean habitat. This incredible marine life habitat can be observed through the world’s largest viewing panel, which measures 36 metres long by 8.3 metres high.
Gardens by the Bay, in the Marina Bay area, is close to the central business district. The iconic 50-metre-high SuperTrees are the most visible parts of the Gardens but the best areas are the two conservatories: the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest.
The Flower Dome brings a Mediterranean-type climate to tropical Singapore and features plants from the Mediterranean, as well as from Australia, South America and South Africa. The Cloud Forest, on the other hand, aims to reproduce the conditions of tropical mountains and their corresponding plants.
According to Darren Oh, assistant director of business development, since its opening, Gardens by the Bay has “received numerous requests from various industry players, such as DMCs, hotels, convention centres and other event organisers”.
The new attractions do not stop there. Scheduled to open in the near future, River Safari is a river-themed attraction located close to the existing zoo. It will have 10 different riverine ecosystems from around the world, including the Nile, the Yangtze, the Amazon and even the Tundra. In all, River Safari will feature 500 species and some 5,000 animals. While it is scheduled to open fully this year, the Giant Panda Forest section is already drawing impresive crowds of people.
Over the next few years, even venerable attractions such as the Botanic Gardens and Sungei Buloh will be extended and improved. The Singapore Government has a master plan for further development of Sungei Buloh and construction work is currently ongoing for Phase 2, with completion expected by the end of 2013. In addition, another 9.8 hectares of secondary rainforest will be incorporated into the Botanic Gardens and will be used to feature tropical and marshland habitats. This extension will be ready by 2015.
Singapore may not have the wealth of natural resources that its neighbours boast, but there are still plenty of options for nature lovers and adventure seekers. If companies are interested in a nature-related trip to Singapore, the DMCs are game. Destination Asia’s Guy says: “Given some time, we can easily arrange a variety of interesting activities and features. There are plenty of venues, restaurants and attractions that can be fit into an interesting itinerary that is real, tangible and interesting.” Outdoor Singapore, it seems, is the new alfresco Asian option.
Singapore less travelled
Destination management company Pacific World (www.pacificworld.com) provides some unusual alternatives for a rewardingly fresh Singapore visit:
Where to stay
A suite at Marine Life Park
(www.rwsentosa.com) provides a private front-row view of the Ocean Gallery. Relaxing as marine creatures swim by the window is an unusual and memorable experience.
Gardenasia’s (www.gardenasia.com) villas offer a back-to-basics concept in a rustic setting, while Equarius Hotel (www.rwsentosa.com) is located on the fringes of a tropical rainforest in Resorts World Sentosa.
What to do
Begin with a morning tour at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (www.sbwr.org.sg) to observe the mangrove ecosystem, then spend
the rest of the day at nearby farms. Goats wander around at Hay Dairies (www.haydairies.com.sg) while Bollywood Veggies
(http://bollywoodveggies.com) is an organic farm with a nice café.
The Changi Boardwalk
(www.wildsingapore.com/places/cbw.htm) offers a peaceful walk down the eastern coast of Singapore – the nature trail includes a creek walk, kelong walk and sunset walk, to name a few.
Gardens by the Bay (www.gardensbythebay.com.sg) also boasts an astounding variety of flora shipped in from all over the world.
Fun event venues
Alkaff Mansion (www.alkaff.com.sg) is a fancy event venue with great outdoor spaces in a historic, verdant setting.
A more fun-focused option would be the Forest Lodge at Singapore Zoo (www.zoo.com.sg), where delegates can even enjoy a bite to eat with the lions.
More excitement is possible at Sentosa Island’s (www.sentosa.com.sg) at Imbiah Hill Megazip Adventure Park, or riding a three-metre wave at Wave House.
At the Changi Coastal Settlement (www.thecoastalsettlement.com), a novel dining experience can be had, with quality food served in casual old school metal plates and bowls. Finally, within the Singapore Botanic Gardens the Halia Restaurant (http://thehalia.com/sbg) serves fusion food in a subtle marriage of European and Asian traditions.
Courtesy of Pacific World