Exit interview with Lionel Yeo: How big is your heart?

Yeo: “If your heart is big, your home can accommodate a lot of guests.” Watch the video here

Today is Lionel Yeo’s last day as CEO of the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), and as a public sector leader for 22 years. He wants to cross over to the private sector, saying he “is open to all opportunities”, including in travel & tourism, when TTG Asia asked him about his next move.

In an exit interview, Yeo believes Singapore is only at the cusp of a travel boom despite the country receiving a record 17.4 million visitors and S$26.8 billion (US$20 billion) tourism revenues last year over 2016.

“What surprises me now (after six years with STB) is how much more the sector still has to grow. We are really at the cusp of a travel boom and I think a lot of us are underestimating the potential of travel & tourism to grow (especially from Asia).

Yeo: “If your heart is big, your home can accommodate a lot of guests.” Watch the video here

“I was in Yogyakarta recently. When you talk to the Grab driver or hotel staff, they all have the aspiration to want to see the world. And there are millions like them in Indonesia, Vietnam, China, India. We know about it intellectually as Asia is often flagged as the region with the strongest outbound growth, but it’s when you go around that you see there is a lot of pent-up demand,” he said.

Yeo isn’t worried that Singapore will hit overtourism, even as more growth will come from Asia and STB targets big-volume markets such as cruises and MICE. Asia already comprises 80 per cent of arrivals, with the bulk of Asian arrivals coming from three big-population countries such as China, India and Indonesia, while South-east Asian markets are also rising. A mature destination with limited land, the country now has thrice the number of arrivals as its population of around 5.5 million people.

Tackling the density issue, Yeo pointed out that with 17.4 million arrivals staying 3.5 days, Singapore has only 150,000-200,000 visitors on any given day. “That’s the number you need to compare with the resident population of 5.5 million. In that context, I don’t think we’re at a huge risk of overcrowding as a result of tourism activities,” he said, adding Singapore is also able to manage people flows well.

“However, it’s important that we’re still going for yield when we grow tourism numbers. We want to make sure every visitor makes a good contribution to our economy; that informs the way we go after the target audience in each source market,” he said.

When asked what number of visitors on any given day would make it unmanageable, Yeo said: “You may arrive at a pure physical number. I think, though, for any society, any country, there is another aspect which is, really, how big is your heart? And if your heart is big, your home can accommodate a lot of guests. If your heart is small, even with one guest, you can get a bit annoyed.

“We’re people who are traditionally open. We’re a small country; we’ve always been open to global flows and we ourselves travel a lot, so we accept that wanting to travel and see the world is very much a part of what humans want to do.”

Yeo counts his biggest achievement as developing tourism as part of the broader lens of national development, not something that is separate or opposed to national development. “As we talked about earlier, in some other parts of the world, tourism development is not necessarily welcomed by locals. That’s absolutely something we have to get right in Singapore and I thought the best way of doing that is having tourism development as part of the objective of national development,” he said.

Passion Made Possible, a country branding as opposed to just a tourism branding created by STB and the Economic Development Board, has helped the locals accept travel & tourism. It is used internationally by the two bodies, but also by other Singapore government agencies, many of which concern themselves with locals. The brand thus is exposed to the domestic audience as well.

Spotlighting Singapore talent – local chefs, designers, artists, etc – to enliven a destination story – it creates a sense of civic pride among Singaporeans which in turn creates a tourism ’host’ spirit among locals, said Yeo.

“We must make sure our hearts remain open and welcoming,” he said.

“For people who work in the sector, it may seem obvious that tourism is important, that tourism contributes. But for those outside of it, their starting point may be the negatives, the trade-offs to be made (for tourism contribution)…It’s important to keep in mind that there is community support for what we do. Don’t take it for granted that everybody thinks our sector is the one that should grow.”

His advice on preparing for future growth? It’s a mistake to think that the growth of tomorrow will look like the growth of yesterday, he said.

“So staying on top of consumer trends, travel trends, media trends, are important so you are well positioned to capture that growth. Because the traveller of tomorrow will not be who you were used to. You may have more potential travellers but their preferences, media habits, might be quite different. This is a sector that moves quickly, so all of us have to keep abreast of these developments.”

Meanwhile, Melissa Ow, currently STB deputy chief executive, is acting CEO until Yeo’s replacement is named.

In tomorrow’s Part II interview with Yeo: High and low points in helping travel agencies transform in the past six years


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