Opinion

Crazy Rich Asians ‘cine-tourism’: Will it compel more people to visit Singapore?

The standout romantic comedy of 2018 was a global box-office hit as well as a ‘cultural moment’ that put Singapore on the map, but does it mean more tourists are flocking to the Lion City? Chen May Yee of J. Walter Thompson – also a speaker at the Mumbrella Asia Travel Marketing Summit in SIngapore on May 7 – attempts to find out

About Crazy Rich Asians, Jon M. Chu’s glossy adaptation of the bestseller by Kevin Kwan, this much is clear – it was a box office smash.

In fact, the romantic comedy about Singapore’s jet-set has grossed US$238 million globally since its release in August 2018. It was also nominated for two Golden Globe awards.

More than that, it was a cultural moment – the last major United States movie with an all-Asian cast being Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club some 25 years ago – and Asians in America went bananas (pun fully intended), with community leaders buying out theatres on opening weekend.

But was it also a marketing bonanza – as hoped – for Singapore? After all, the crazy rich characters strutted, simpered and schemed against a backdrop of Singapore finest landmarks – Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by the Bay, Chijmes, Newton food centre, the Merlion and others – in what amounted to the kind of sweeping product placement most marketers can only dream of.

‘Cine-tourism’ – where tourists flock to locations in hit films – is real thing. Aditya Chopra’s 1995’s Bollywood blockbuster Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge starring Shah Rukh Khan led to Indian tourists inundating the Swiss alps. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which came out in 2001, turbo-charged tourism to New Zealand. Meanwhile Xu Zheng’s 2012 hit comedy Lost in Thailand helped triple the number of Chinese holidaymakers to the land of smiles.

That’s why governments dangle tax breaks to foreign film crews and hire celebrities as tourism ambassadors. Beyond visitor numbers, there’s the soft power boost that comes with shaping global pop culture. China – vying with the US for technological supremacy as well as geopolitical influence – understands this only too well.

Among those with global ambitions are Beijing-based Dalian Wanda, which bought Hollywood’s Legendary Entertainment and Shanghai’s Pearl Studio which – fresh from Kung fu Panda 3 – is producing an animated film about a girl and the legendary Moon Goddess.

Beyond the buzz

Indeed, after Crazy Rich Asians opened in August last year, searches for Singapore on Google and on travel websites Orbitz and Kayak jumped. The Singapore Tourism Board helped juice the machine, rolling out ‘Crazy Rich Singapore Week’ – a pop-up event in Los Angeles featuring a Singaporean chef, a DJ, a mural artist and a mixologist whose drinks included the ‘Pandan-monium’. STB also teamed up with Warner Brothers to produce short videos taking fans behind the scenes.

The buzz was undeniable. But did it translate into actual travel? Five months on, the answer is a definite maybe. Total international arrivals to Singapore from January to November 2018 – the latest figures available – grew 6.6% to 16.9 million.

More to the point, arrivals from the US to Singapore grew 13% in that period to almost 580,000, faster even than the healthy 9% clip logged a year earlier. However, the biggest jumps in American arrivals came in March (17.6%) and April (24.1%), before the movie opened.

Singapore hotels also saw brisk business last year. The average hotel occupancy ratesfor January to November 2018 was at its highest in about a decade at 86.5%, up 1.2% from a year earlier. But occupancy rates were high throughout the year, and in fact peaked at 92.6% in July – the month before the movie hit cinemas. Although these numbers don’t yet include the holiday month of December.

Cause and effect

Of course, trying to link cause and effect in the travel industry is notoriously difficult. Moviegoers, no matter how smitten by a luscious location, don’t tend to jump on a plane the next day – especially for a 20-hour flight. They may only do so months out.

There were also other factors affecting travel to Singapore – such as better air connectivity and geopolitical tensions.  Between mid-2016 and the end of 2018, Singapore Airlines launched more than 40 weekly non-stop flights between the two countries, which more than likely boosted US arrivals to Singapore. Conversely, the US-China trade war that started last year may have discouraged overall US travel to Asia.

Asked to assess the impact of Crazy Rich Asians, the STB was careful to note a host of concurrent factors. “Since the launch of the movie, we have seen a spike in searches on Singapore online, and our tour operators and travel agent partners have seen an increase in enquiries and bookings as well,” said STB regional director for the Americas Kershing Goh.

“Having said that, the good numbers we are seeing from the US is a contribution of many factors such as increased flights, affordable airfares, good market economics and more aggressive promotions. The exposure from CRA definitely came at the right time to spur the current wave of awareness and interest to greater heights.”

Mixed picture

A spokesperson for Marina Bay Sands said they “do not have any information to offer” on whether the movie boosted occupancy, retail or dining. Smaller players were more forthcoming. T.Y. Suen, founder of Monster Day Tours, said their Crazy Rich Asians-inspired private city tour launched two months ago is attracting 10 to 15 mostly American guests each week. “We even have guests who are fans of the movie and insist on visiting every filming location,” Suen said, adding: “There have been consistent bookings for the CRA tour but we hope to see more.”

At Newton Food Centre, several stall owners report business as usual. “Some locals and tourists do ask us about the movie and perhaps more people around the world will now know about Newton Circus,” said a woman behind the counter at Sin Sin BBQ, who wanted to be known only as Madam Chen.  

“But on the ground, there is very little direct impact on our business itself – our sales are pretty much same as before. Newton Circus has been featured in other international TV programmes before, so it’s not something that we have not seen before.”

Locations in neighbouring Malaysia, however, have enjoyed a spillover effect. At the Four Seasons Langkawi, the backdrop for the movie’s luxurious bachelorette party, marketing manager Norhayanti Jamil said “awareness and visibility did translate into good bookings for us” – particularly between mid-December 2018 and mid-January 2019.

At Cheong Fatt Tze mansion in Penang, spokesman Shen Loh-Lim said they have witnessed more hotel guests as well as visitors wanting to tour the historic merchant’s home. Many visitors, Loh-Lim added, posted photos of themselves on social media, referencing the movie’s climactic mah-jong scene in the courtyard.

Chen May Yee is Asia-Pacific director of the innovation group at JWT Intelligence, the trend-forecasting and market research arm of J. Walter Thompson – her research for this article was supported by Teo Cheng Wee. She will be part of a session discussing the Crazy Rich Asians bounce at the Mumbrella Asia Travel Marketing Summit in Singapore on May 7

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