SINGAPORE -- Standing in the SkyPark atop the three-tower, 57-story Marina Bay Sands resort sparked thoughts of Dubai and Las Vegas.
The $5.5 billion resort, an ambitious structure that has transformed Singapore's skyline, was built on reclaimed land that expanded the island and created a downtown bay. It is an architectural marvel that brings to mind the Burj Al Arab in Dubai.
This resort, whose towers are connected and topped by an infinity pool longer than the Eiffel Tower is high, brings the style and scale of Vegas entertainment, gambling, shopping and convention facilities to Singapore.
This is a modern, cosmopolitan city-nation, a global business center that in most ways would not invite comparisons to either Sin City or Emirate extravagance. But in this instance, the sheer magnitude and architectural ambition of the Marina Bay Sands rival the legendary excess of those cities.
Moreover, it represents only the beginning of what is to come. The Marina Bay Sands is just one of a host of new developments coming on line as this Southeastern Asia business center and aviation hub strives to evolve beyond its more sober roots into a full-fledged tourism capital.
"The destination has become a lot more exciting," said Serene Tan of the Singapore Tourism Board.
Indeed, the Marina Bay Sands is one of two integrated resorts to open in Singapore this year and just one in a long list of ambitious public and private developments that, when combined with renovations of key attractions, will clearly reshape this destination:
- Resorts World Sentosa, a $5 billion-plus development, will feature six hotels, Asia's first Universal Studios theme park and the world's largest oceanarium.
- The $186 million Singapore Flyer, the world's largest observation sky wheel, opened in 2008 and offers panoramic views of the island. It rises over parts of a new Formula One racetrack.
- Almost-completed renovations and additions to the country's famed Orchard Road shopping district are the result of $31 million in infrastructure improvements and $1.25 billion in private development.
- The $386 million International Cruise Terminal will double Singapore's berth capacity and enable more ships to homeport and call here. The port's deep waters, large turning basin and absence of height restrictions will enable it to accommodate Royal Caribbean International's Oasis-class ships.
- A new, $1.5 billion sports hub will include a 55,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof and a 6,000-seat indoor aquatic center.
- A $1 billion Gardens by the Bay and Marina Barrage project will connect via a skybridge over the highway to the Marina Bay Sands.
- The $250 million National Art Gallery will open in 2013.
- A new Lake District, comprising 528 acres of land and 160 acres of water, will feature a number of hotels, restaurants, shopping and "edutainment" attractions, tourism officials said.
- A River Safari wildlife park is scheduled to open in 2012 in Singapore's Mandai area.
- Among several new luxury hotels are the ultraluxurious Capella beach resort and the boutique Fullerton Bay hotel, which offers stunning views of the Marina Bay Sands.
A cornerstone of the country's tourism development plans are the two massive integrated resorts that opened this year: Marina Bay Sands downtown and Resorts World on Singapore's beach resort island, Sentosa. They include the first and only two casinos in Singapore. (View our Singapore slideshow here.)
While both are designed to attract leisure and business travelers and offer meetings facilities, Resorts World has set out to become the region's premier family destination, while the Marina Bay features a large expo center designed to make it a premier convention destination.
Each offers extensive shopping areas and several celebrity-chef restaurants.
The projects, put out to bid in 2004, are opening just as Asia is experiencing a rapid recovery from the economic slowdown that severely hit tourism and hotel business around the globe.
Fabian Foo, communications executive for Resorts World, said the resorts are key in transforming Singapore as a destination.
"A lot of people equate Singapore, in terms of leisure, to shopping; food; and meetings and incentive travel," he said. "And in the past few years, there hasn't been much new to offer. The sky wheel opened in 2008, but there hasn't been a powerful lure."
The integrated resorts seem to be changing that.
On a recent visit to Marina Bay Sands, the lobby was packed with travelers of all ages and nationalities. Lines for check-in and checkout were long, and an overflow breakfast zone had to be set up in one of the bars to accommodate the crowds.
Likewise, the casino was packed even at midday.
Resorts World was also bustling, and Foo said it was on track to meet its goal of attracting 13 million visitors by year's end.
It was developed on 121 acres of Sentosa, an island that has long housed an amusement park, dolphin lagoon, beach resorts and beach clubs.
"Sentosa has been around for a long time and is synonymous with fun," Foo said.
Resorts World, however, intends to take that fun to a new level.
Phase 1, which opened this year, includes the Universal Studios theme park and four hotels: a Hard Rock Hotel; the Festive Hotel, which is a family-oriented property with bunk beds in the rooms and a kids area in the lobby; Hotel Michael, designed by renowned American architect Michael Graves; and Crockfords Tower, a luxury, invitation-only property for high-stakes gamblers.
Phase 2 will include the oceanarium, a marine museum, a spa-villa hotel and a sixth hotel at an entrance to a forest.
Entertainment at the resort includes a Cirque du Soleil-style event titled "Voyage de la Vie."
The Marina Bay Sands was developed on a peninsula of land that was reclaimed from the sea in the 1970s to expand Singapore's central business district. The reclamation, which formed Marina Bay, was largely undeveloped and was used primarily for sports while the land was allowed to settle.
The Marina Bay Sands is Singapore's largest hotel; its three towers offer more than 2,500 rooms and suites. Developed by Las Vegas Sands Corp., it resembles Vegas not just because of its enormous casino but also in its shopping, convention and exhibition facilities.
Like its Vegas sister property, the Venetian, the shopping area features an indoor river with boat rides. Instead of the Venetian's gondolas, however, the Sands' boats are traditional sampans.
Although the lobby's glass walls and roofs connecting the three towers offer an open-air feel unheard of in Vegas, a sense of Sin City is overwhelming nonetheless.
The resort's hotel accommodations range from the basic room you would expect to find in any upscale Las Vegas property to the 5,000-square-foot presidential suite, complete with his-and-hers bathrooms in the master bedroom, a grand piano, workout rooms, private hot tubs and a host of other top-end amenities.
The hotel's highlights are the SkyPark and infinity pool, which connect the tops of the three towers. Part of the rooftop, including a restaurant and bar, is open to the public. But the swimming pool, which appears to drop off into the Singapore skyline, is open only to guests.
The new developments are a result of the government's efforts to more than double its visitor numbers from 8 million in 2004 to 17 million by 2015. Singapore tourism officials say the new resorts alone are helping to transform a city and country long known as a clean and modern business hub into a regional and international tourism destination.
While they concede that the distance from North America presents a challenge -- from Denver it took 24 hours, with two short stops -- they hope the diversified offerings will encourage travelers who are using its airport as a hub to other Southeastern Asia destinations to spend some time here.
"It's created a more compelling reason for them to stop in Singapore," said the tourism board's Tan.
And despite a global downturn in travel last year, officials at hotels around Singapore say the new resorts do not appear to be cannibalizing the island's host of other upscale and luxury offerings.
At the downtown Shangri-La, director of sales Takashi Kono said occupancy is back in the 90% range after dropping into the 70s last year.
"The recovery was fast," he said. "We anticipated layoffs, but that didn't happen."
At the Capella on Sentosa island, Michelle Lee, director of sales and marketing, said the resort has been booming. After a slow start following its opening last year, Lee said, the property has been hitting 100% occupancy on weekends in recent months.