In Singapore, is green what it seems? One Singaporean’s take on sustainable tourism in the city-state: interview with Kevin Phun

Though it excels in sustainability within the built environment, Singapore can do better in involving and educating local stakeholders, says Kevin Phun, lecturer, consultant, and founder of the Center for Responsible Tourism Singapore, in this interview by Chi Lo.

In Singapore, is green what it seems? One Singaporean's take on sustainable tourism in the city-state: interview with Kevin Phun

CHI: Hi Kevin, you are the founder of the Center for Responsible Tourism Singapore. Can you tell us a little about the organisation and how it was born?  

KEVIN: When I was about 34, I told my prof at the Leeds Met University (now known as Leeds Beckett), that by the time I reach 40, I will have set up the Center for Responsible Tourism in my home town of Singapore. I saw a need as there was very little awareness let alone knowledge of responsible tourism. I feel the public sector needs to move away from infrastructure and equating tourism with merely arrival numbers and receipts.

Though I seem to be 3 years late, I am still in the initial stages of building it; the Center seeks to provide short courses and workshops related to sustainable/responsible tourism. I am looking to do workshops on ecotourism and community based tourism, but I am still putting out feelers to measure if there is demand!

CHI: Singapore seems already like it is a green city – arguably the greenest in Asia. What is the mission for the Center for Responsible Tourism Singapore, and how are you working with stakeholders to achieve that mission? 

KEVIN: The term sustainable tourism or responsible tourism is very new here – my friend told me I am quite useless in this country! 

Many people are not aware of this term, as we do not have the same kind of capacity as other countries to be able to witness, experience and execute different forms of tourism. I work with other industry practitioners quite a lot, often to pick their brains and draw from their expertise. From a destination standpoint, we are not the greenest though we seem to be – because our space is very small, so the smallest spaces get cleaned faster than all the much larger spaces. For example, attractions such as Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands are epitome of what we have been very good at – man-made attractions that relate to built experiences, indoors, arrival numbers, retail receipts etc. The small businesses are seldom associated with them; the tourism incomes rarely trickle down to the man on the street. I hope to spearhead this concept of sustainable tourism in Singapore, to play an important role in facilitating the understanding of this important and rather broad concept. 

In Singapore, is green what it seems? One Singaporean's take on sustainable tourism in the city-state: interview with Kevin Phun
A view of the famous Marina Bay Sands

CHI: What makes sustainable tourism so difficult in this region of the world – specifically South East Asia? Then, in a place such as Singapore, which is a metropolitan area which survives mostly on imported goods and dearth of natural wildlife habitats, what are some unique challenges the city and its tourism faces, and what are some solutions?

KEVIN: I do not dare to represent the other countries in South East Asia, as they have a much longer and richer history of sustainable tourism. We in S’pore are dependent on built tourism attractions as they help make money faster. But it’s time to focus more on the natural and heritage sites because they provide the long-term benefits, and it is not necessarily always economic benefits we should be talking about. 

As I mentioned, the small businesses are seldom involved in the action, and this is part of what makes a destination sustainable. Even intangible cultural heritage (ICH) is somehow not well understood and argued, simply because the exposure to it has been minimal. Our tourism industry has grown but the growth has largely been one dimensional. It is about time the softer part of it, the ICH stuff for example, starts to come in. To that, the National Heritage Board (NHB), and the cultural and heritage organisations have done some very good work the past few decades, by collaborating with one another for example.

CHI: Then what role can the private and public sectors play respectively in making responsible and sustainable tourism happen? 

In Singapore, is green what it seems? One Singaporean's take on sustainable tourism in the city-state: interview with Kevin Phun
Morning at Merlion and Marina bay, a well-known attraction in Singapore

KEVIN: I think both the private and public sector should engage the non-profit and volunteer sector more. These are the people who are closest to the ground, who are able to deliver first hand information on the realities of the issues at hand. The policy formulation should engage this sector. A lot of issues in tourism and sustainable tourism are complex and thus require a cross disciplinary approach – tourism problems need to be addressed from a multi-sectoral or multi-disciplinary approach.  

CHI: Kevin, you spend a lot of your time and energy on teaching about sustainability and responsible tourism. What is your main message to Gen Z and what is their reaction? And what can Millennials, Gen Xers and Boomers take with them as well? 

KEVIN: I guess my main messages are that tourism comes in many forms and down here, we only see it in one single form.

I get a lot of students who don’t seem to have a clue. Students from outside Singapore have more or less an idea of what responsible tourism concepts are, but these things are not common to local students. So one of the ways I start talking about sustainable tourism is by discussing people and community, sharing stories of those who are impacted by tourism.

We need to broaden our horizons. S’poreans travel a lot, but end up knowing rather little. We need to read more and let travel supplement our reading. Pro-poor tourism, intangible cultural heritage, and a lot of other terms are alien to many of my students. The younger ones have not seen much poverty, and so may find it tough to relate to pro-poor tourism. However, this is the generation that rallies on things like climate change, gets angry at unethical acts and so some aspects of sustainable tourism resonates with them.

This generation is very into ethics – what is morally right and wrong, environmentalism, and so on. A lot of the time, at the end of the course, I often get students who come up to me and share that they would like to continue to learn about sustainable tourism.

I hope we get out there, not by using VR, but by really going places, seeing, listening, taking down notes, comparing less (our national hobby when we travel!), criticizing less, and learning that places are different, not inferior. Singaporeans and the world around us must know that tourism solutions can require years of knowing and understanding the issues, not a few hours of Googling. 

CHI: Thank you so much for sharing your insights, Kevin! 

Chi Lo
Chi Lo
Chi Lo is recognised as an expert in sustainable tourism with over 10 years experience leading sustainability programmes spanning several continents. Her consultancy offers both sustainability advisory and coaching services for businesses wishing to operate more responsibly and conscientiously, as well as communications and content development services. Chi is active in the sustainable tourism community and is currently a member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council Executive Committee and Board, and the World Tourism Association for Culture & Heritage Advisory Board.

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