Singapore hopes Formula One brightens economic gloom

By Ruth Youngblood,DPA,

Singapore : Singapore is counting on the acclaim emanating from the first Grand Prix under lights to brighten the gloom hovering over its tourism industry.

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With 40,000 overseas visitors on shopping sprees, many sporting team T-shirts and caps, Orchard Road retailers were basking in a three-day bonanza from Friday through Sunday.

In contrast, managers of other shopping centres near roads blocked off for the race stared down almost empty aisles.

Assurances of intangible benefits to the city-state brought little consolation. “It’s so quiet,” said a supermarket staff member. “There are usually four times more people on weekends.”

Economists cautioned against expectations that the F1 race will will boost the slowing economy. Initial estimates are likely to be pared lower amid the dismal global economic outlook, said Alvin Liew, Standard Chartered Bank economist.

The city-state image will be the big winner, they noted. The race which attracted a global television audience “should be the catalyst in changing Singapore’s efficient but dull image,” said Goh Shu Fen, head of an advertising industry consulting firm, helping to attract more tourists, conferences, sports and businesses in the long haul.

Singapore is paying $200 million over five years to promote itself as a fun place to visit. Two casino resorts to be completed by 2010 and the completion last year of the world’s largest observation wheel, taller than the London Eye, are all part of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s drive to inject a significant “wow” factor.

The TV views of the skyline juxtaposed with the sight of the F1 racers hurtling past the Singapore Flyer and historic icons have made for stunning watching, media analysts said.

“Hopefully, this will open people’s eyes,” said sports supremo Bernie Ecclestone who came up with the idea of night racing in Singapore.

Against the prospect of the city-state slipping into a technical recession this quarter and predictions that the economy may grow less than four per cent in 2008, the overwhelming praise for the venue has been heartening.

Some doubt however that the 2008 target for 10.8 million tourists will be reached. The city-state has been aiming for a larger slice of the tourism pie to compensate for less manufacturing.

“The full economic effect (of the race) can only be accessed” afterwards, said Minister of State for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran.

Beyond the race weekend, there was little foreign interest in a jamboree with a variety of attractions that started ahead of the main event until Oct 5 in hopes of encouraging tourists to stay longer. Much to the disappointment of hotels, the spectators from overseas flew in right before Friday’s practice sessions and were jetting out after the end.

Formula 1 team owners acknowledge the sport is not immune to the financial crisis.

Gerhard Berger, co-owner of the Toro Rosso Team, forecast tough times ahead.

The global economy “isn’t in the greatest shape and it affects all areas,” said Red Bull’s Christian Horner.