Cultural melting pot and dazzling example of the region's economic successes, wealthy and dynamic Singapore assails the senses of the first time visitor.
The former British trading post and colony has carved a unique niche for itself over the past couple of centuries, nowadays offering a vivid combination of ultra-modern skyscrapers, remnants of tropical rainforest, ambitious tourist developments, occasional reminders of the colonial era, and an assortment of colourful ethnic urban areas such as Little India, each with a character very much of its own.
One of the most noticeable features of this tiny but bustling city-state is its cleanliness - indeed, it is sometimes criticised for its many seemingly petty regulations, such as the banning of chewing gum - but levels of serious crime are very low, and it is one of the world's safest places to visit. Despite its rather sanitised reputation, though, Singapore is in fact anything but dull. The visitor is spoilt for choice when it comes to things to see and do: it boasts museums and river tours, plentiful green spaces, a vibrant nightlife, a rich cultural mix, and a whole planet's worth of culinary experiences.
All this means that the city offers a veritable feast for the senses, a heady mixture of the familiar and the exotic. Although accommodation remains pricey when compared to other countries in the region, as a whole the city suits most budgets and presents a happy collision of opposites. When it comes to food, for example, even wealthy Singaporeans are as likely to champion fantastic noodles in a food market as they are to rave over fine dining in a leading hotel restaurant.
Recent years have seen the city really pushing for recognition as an international tourist destination in its own right, rather than as a place for a short stopover and a little shopping. There has been very significant investment in tourist facilities such as two huge casinos, Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World, which have catapulted Singapore into the big league of gambling destinations. Although there were moral objections to the construction, in true Singaporean style these were waved aside in the name of economic growth.
These new developments are not only about poker and blackjack, however, but are aimed more broadly at developing tourism in a country which lacks the natural attractions of its neighbours. Resorts World is just one aspect of the development on Sentosa island, which also includes a theme park and museums; Marina Bay Sands is part of a reclamation project which incorporates grand boulevards, bars and restaurants – plus it links up to a new botanic garden. Singapore’s skyline is continually being reinvented and added to, helping to give the place a dynamism which rewards repeat visits.
This zeal for building new attractions has been mirrored by the city’s success in hosting international events, the most notable of which is the Formula One motor racing. Closing down many central streets for the first night race to be included in the calendar, Singapore celebrates the annual event in style with (among other things) performances by international music stars. It might be small, but this is not a city which is content to do things by halves.