Survival of fittest for nature attractions

Along with the Singapore Zoo and Jurong Bird Park, Underwater World Singapore completed the trifecta of natural attractions here associated with land, air and water. Conceptually, they formed a connected set but geographically they were far-flung and could not reinforce each other. On its own, Underwater World had a proud run for 25 years, drawing more than 30 million visitors. But it fell victim to the times and will close later this month. Many might recall the excitement it stirred when plans were first announced to build the largest tropical fish oceanarium in Asia, at a cost of more than $20 million. Over the years, that formula helped to bump up visitor figures for Sentosa - untamed nature carefully curated and presented in a modern setting.

With its lease expiring in less than two years, the attraction has decided to close early so as to facilitate the transfer of its exotic marine creatures. As species are facing grave threats everywhere, it is proper to ensure that the welfare of marine life is paramount. If mishaps occur for whatever reason during the transition, the diligence of the nation's other efforts to showcase nature might also be called into question.

Underwater World's imminent closure raises the issue of viability when big bets are placed on natural attractions, like the nature hub envisaged at Mandai. Wildlife has always been alluring but growing the number of visitors can be challenging. To remain in the public eye, Underwater World held a submerged wedding; hosted a dinner with sharks during the Singapore Food Festival; and organised the first underwater lion dance in an aquarium, and also the first underwater wushu performance. Devoted nature lovers might scoff at such gimmicks but operators have to constantly think of innovative ways to get visitors through the ticket gates in order to expose them to the natural wonders on show. Another factor to consider is the competition for visitors coming from both within and outside Singapore, such as the S.E.A. Aquarium (with over 100,000 marine animals) and Adventure Cove Waterpark also situated on Sentosa. Farther afield, the Manila Ocean Park and the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai, China, also beckon visitors to the region. In addition, there are purely man-made attractions to contend with, such as the Universal Studios theme park at Sentosa.

Such realism must not be overlooked as plans are shaped for Mandai. While caring for wildlife, there must also be efforts to present them to visitors in compelling ways. These might help to generate a lifelong love for nature, especially among the young. Given the distractions in today's world, operators must realise that the survival of the fittest applies to natural attractions as well. None can afford to remain static without evolving if they hope to still be standing years from now.

This article was first published on June 13, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.