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Another side of Singapore

An Asian sleeper is striving to become L.A.-lite -- golf, boating, tennis, but no traffic -- a tranquil break from the busy capital just a bridge away.

February 18, 2007|Beverly Beyette | Times Staff Writer

Singapore — FROM inside the gaping mouth of the Merlion, nine stories above ground, I surveyed the island of Sentosa and, across the harbor, the skyline of Singapore.

The Merlion -- half fish (as in mermaid) and half lion (as in the Lion City) -- is the mythological guardian of Singapore. This 121-foot-tall statue stands watch over Sentosa, a 1,230-acre island just off Singapore's southern coast that will be an oasis from the urban uproar.

It has a ringside seat to some financial fireworks: About $7.5 billion in investment is expected here in hopes of making it a tourist destination.

Sentosa, just 15 minutes from the heart of the city of Singapore, once was called Pulau Blakang Mati, which translates loosely as "island of those who die behind," possibly a reference to a malaria epidemic that decimated its population in the 1840s. The switch in 1972 to Sentosa, which means "tranquillity" in Malay, hints at the changes developers hope for as it works to position itself as a destination and not just a side trip from the capital.

Today, Sentosa has one foot in fantasy land and one foot in a future in which Singapore embraces, well, Southern California, with a gated community of luxury homes and a yacht marina. As I discovered on a visit here in September, it's moving ahead, but for now, it has a split personality and remains a destination that's still on the verge of achieving its potential.

As Asia continues to attract tourists, it will have to pull out even more stops. Although Singapore tourism exceeded its goal in 2006 -- 9.7 million visitors generated $8.1 billion -- it faces growing competition in Asia for tourist dollars. Macao, with its eye on the newly prosperous and gambling-enchanted Chinese, has gone casino crazy. Now Singapore, which long banned casinos, has capitulated to the trend. Two casinos have been OKd, and Sentosa will have one of them, a golden opportunity for the resort island, where management appears poised to seize the moment.

Bridge to the big city

SINGAPORE, an island city-state that lies south of Malaysia and north of Indonesia in Southeast Asia, became independent in 1965 after more than a century under British rule and a few years as part of Malaysia.

A short bridge links Sentosa, one of Singapore's larger outer islands, to the mainland. Many of Sentosa's day-tripper attractions -- a few of which give kitsch a bad name -- are grouped at its western end. At the eastern end are the luxurious Sentosa Resort & Spa, serious restaurants and two 18-hole golf courses. (Sentosa hosts the Singapore Open.)

And at the eastern tip is 290-acre Sentosa Cove, the gated community whose yacht marina and tennis courts will remind you of Southern California. No surprise, perhaps, considering that Darrell Metzger, chief executive of Sentosa Leisure Group, hails from Newport Beach and has a resume that includes 10 years with Disneyland.

Sentosa the island, once a British military outpost under colonial rule, has been a work in progress since the government undertook its transformation into a tropical resort 35 years ago. That's when the Sentosa Development Corp. -- now called Sentosa Leisure Group -- was established under the Ministry of Trade and Industry to develop, manage and promote Sentosa as a holiday resort.

There have been ups and downs. By the late '90s, Sentosa had a reputation as overpriced and underwhelming, with musty attractions such as a rare-stone museum (the Coralarium), Volcanoland (now extinct) and Dinosaurland (also extinct).

When he came onboard in 2000, Metzger was faced with what he calls a "downward spiral" -- a paucity of new investment in the face of declining investor confidence, together with dipping attendance and a perception that Sentosa was an expensive tourist trap.

"All the attractions had not been updated in 10 years," he said. "You can't run a family destination and not put any money in it." People grumbled about the $4 admission, plus as much as $10 for parking. Admission was lowered to $1.25 per person, plus $1.25 per car, including most parking.

Even so, ill-conceived attractions limped along, their operators hoping to profit by selling their leaseholds. Metzger said 21 underperforming operations were removed from the island in 2000 and 2001 and replaced with such proven brands as Subway, Ben & Jerry's and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. "We still have room for improvement," Metzger acknowledged.

The plan is to develop only 30% of Sentosa, and the rest --which includes secondary rain forest and walking trails -- will be preserved as greenbelt. There also is native wildlife to protect, including rhesus macaques that wander into hotel lobbies and peacocks that can halt traffic.

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