Ms Cindy Zhao (in blue) moving her goods, with the help of a relative, from one shop to another in Chinatown’s Pagoda Street on Friday. The Straits Times/Asia News Network/LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE — More than 20 tourist souvenir shops in Singapore, several of which have been in operation for decades, have closed for good – casualties of Covid-19 travel restrictions here and around the world.

With no end to the pandemic in sight, other shops are seeing this as their inevitable end as well in the months to come, The Sunday Times has found.

On bad days, some gift stores in popular tourist spots such as Chinatown and Bugis Street do not see even a single customer.

Mr Joe Chen, founder of the Singapore Souvenir Centre, one of the bigger players with 10 outlets under different brands, said there could well be a situation where tourism speciality shops all but disappear when travel eventually resumes.

“It would be a pity. After all, we too help to market Singapore to tourists,” noted Mr Chen, 29, who believes that 90 percent of souvenir shops will fold within the next six months if more help does not come in soon.

The pandemic has decimated the tourism industry, with air travel crippled by border closures.

Singapore recorded a dismal 2,200 visitor arrivals in June, down from 1.6 million in the same month last year. Visitors numbered 750 in April and 880 in May, compared with 1.6 million and 1.5 million in the same respective months last year.

The impact has trickled down to these souvenir shops that are dependent on the tourist market to survive. For these stores, business has dropped by at least 80 per cent.

Many shop owners have had to dig into their savings to keep their businesses going, and some have stopped ordering new stock since as early as February.

These shops sell a variety of souvenirs, ranging from Merlion chocolates to uniquely Singapore T-shirts and kebaya tops.

Other common mementos include mugs, magnets, keychains, wallets and tote bags imprinted with Singapore sights.

When ST visited Bugis Street last Thursday, it saw some 10 large bags of Singapore T-shirts and kebayas left unopened at a shop. In the past week, shop owner Alice Leow, 67, said she has had zero business.

She has not bought any new stock since March and is considering winding up her business.

“We sell souvenirs but if there are no tourists, how can we sell them? Locals are not going to buy souvenirs,” Ms Leow said. “I don’t know what to do; we can’t return the goods.”

Despite this, some souvenir shops said they are under contractual obligations to open daily.

In Orchard Road, one Lucky Plaza store which has been seeing losses for the past six months has had to let go two workers. Its owner, who declined to be named, now has fewer than 10 customers a day, down from about 40 visitors before Covid-19 struck.

As a result, she has shortened opening hours from 13 to eight hours. “If not, I would be just sitting around doing nothing,” she added.

A few shops have started selling face masks or have implemented pay cuts and shorter working hours to cut costs and stay afloat.

The Singapore Souvenir Centre has stopped all production of souvenirs since January. Gone are the days when busloads of tourists would arrive to snap up mementos. Its outlets are now selling masks.

Heartbreaking

“We had plans for more outlets and services, but those have since been put on hold,” said Mr Chen.

Over in Chinatown, over a dozen souvenir shops have closed permanently. The tourist hot spot was devoid of its usual hordes of visitors when this reporter visited last week.

Ms Cindy Zhao has closed three of her four shops in Chinatown, where steep rentals cost her about $20,000 a month per shop.

Last Friday, the 50-year-old owner of Orchid Chopsticks, which sells souvenirs such as chopsticks and fans, was busy moving goods from one shop to another.

“It is heartbreaking, because we have put so much work into the shops,” said Ms Zhao, who has been in this line for over 15 years.

Another shop, The Tintin Shop, which has sold memorabilia related to the comic-book character in Chinatown for the past 10 years, is closing down this month.

The shop, which had about 200 to 300 visitors a day previously, now sees only a handful of customers. Tourists made up 80 per cent of its customers before Covid-19 hit.

“It is a miracle if we can see 10 people. It doesn’t even make sense to turn on the air-conditioning,” said shop owner Gabriel Tan, 33.

He added: “It is a depressing sight to see Chinatown like this; it is like a ghost town.”

Recently, the store began offering discounts of at least 30 per cent. It also started selling rare collectibles that it had never put up for sale before to raise funds to move out. “It feels like we are giving parts of the shop away,” said Mr Tan.

He said some other store owners are “betting against the market, hoping to still be here when things are back to normal”.

Nearby, Rezqi Collection is also shutting its doors for good. The store sells fabrics and jewelry and also offers tailoring services. Its monthly rental is about $11,000.

Madam Helen Anthony, 53, who works at the store, said: “Even the weekends are quiet. It is not feasible to continue when we can’t cover the rental. Previously, we could cover rent, salaries, and still make a bit of profit.”

Shop owners believe they would not have been able to last this long if not for government measures such as wage support and rental rebates, but even so, many are unsure if their businesses would survive the pandemic.

“We are taking it a day at a time,” said the owner of Lucky Gift House in Lucky Plaza. “The problem is we have no idea how long it would last.”

The 54-year-old, who gave her name as Madam Yu, said the store has been bleeding money for the past six months.

“We have to be realistic,” she said. “If we do not make money, then we are left with no choice but to end the business.”



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