Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hawker or Hawk?

Singapore loves tourists but are the feelings mutual?

It was just a week ago when Singapore was ranked top in Asia and 10th out of 133 countries globally for the attractiveness of their environments in developing the travel and tourism industry. Nice feat!

I find it difficult to reconcile the ranking with what I see around me but I have no basis to doubt the findings of the the World Economic Forum in their latest Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2009.

Where would the tourists visit? Let me see ...

Sentosa is a must. Don't ask me why but that is the way it is. The visit to the island will easily soak up the whole day. On the next day, will a visit to the Zoo followed by the Night Safari cover the the second item on the itinerary? Okay, that sounds great to me as I love to see the wildlife. Some may visit the museums but I think we still have a long way to compete with the other famous ones like the Louvre in Paris or the Natural History Museum in London.

Shopping is probably another main tourist attraction. Singapore is not perceived as a great shopping paradise in the same way as Hong Kong or Bangkok. However, there is some allure about our Orchard Road that it kept sending foreign visitors flocking to the malls there.

Last but not least, the four letter F word!!


Singaporeans love food and there is so much variety here that visitors from any part of the world will find themselves spoilt for choice. Food is everywhere in Singapore. Singaporeans eat food and breath food.

According to the book "1000 places to see before you die – A traveller’s Life list" by Patricia Schultz, hawker centres are 'Uniquely Singapore'. Eating out here won't be complete without a visit to a hawker centre.

There are more than a hundred such food spots where a great number of stalls offer a labyrinth of gastronomic dishes . One of the most popular hawker centres has to be the Newton Food Centre.

Unfortunately, Newton Food Centre is notorious is someway.

There have been reports on stall holders taking advantage of foreign visitors by charging them excessively. Just a few days ago, six Americans sat down to a seafood dinner at stall 43, Tanglin Best BBQ Seafood. They found themselves $491 poorer after 8 tiger prawns, four crabs, baby squids, half a steamed chicken, four bottles of beer and fruit juices. The bill was $239 just for the tiger prawns alone. The disgusted tourists lodged a complaint.

That is what I call a day-light robbery in disguise.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) must have felt equally disgusted. They have ordered the stall to shut down for three months from 1 April and it is not an early April's Fool Joke. On top of that, the worker who served the Americans cannot work there for one year. This is the stiffest punishment given by the NEA in five years to a hawker who overcharged.

Way to go, NEA!

In their eagerness to make big bucks, some eateries have gone 'the extra mile' to jack up the price.

In a separate incident, a writer wrote to the Straits Times two days ago about his experience at Lei Garden's Orchard Shopping Centre branch. The writer had wanted to order a 4-person set menu which was priced at $42++ per pax. As there were only three of them, he requested the restaurant to arrange for the same set menu for three instead. Each person had xiaolong bao and spring roll, double-boiled soup, roasted chicken, stir-fried vegetables with clams, fried fish, poached vegetables, and durian pudding. Everything seemed to have gone well except that the bill came up to a total of about $400.

You don't need a calculator to realize that it is mathematically incoherent. How cant 1+1+1 be almost 10!

These cases might be isolated but we don't need many of them to stain the reputation of Singapore. The NEA has been spending millions of dollars since the launch of Hawker Centres Upgrading Progam (HUP) in 2001. Many of these centres are looking more pleasant now. However, that alone is not going to spruce the negative image given by some stall holders.

Looks like someone got to clean out the touts in places such as the Newton Food Centre. Even though the NEA has responded quite swiftly, the tourists would probably have gone home and shared their stories. Nowadays, with the help of the Internet, spreading of words is far-reaching and almost instantaneous and in this case, it is bad! At times of a economic downturn, we really don't need any bad publicity to scare our tourists.

Here's a warning alert to all the foodies out there - don't be hawked by the hawkers!!

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