Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bencoolen budget hostels vanishing

They had names like Goh’s Homestay, Lee Boarding House and San Wah Hotel, and helped make Bencoolen Street a haven for backpackers in the 1970s and 1980s.

But they have all closed because of a clampdown by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). The rule states that boarding house permits will be given only to operators that occupy the entire building.

Today, only one cheap-stay place – Hawaii Hostel – remains. Located in a shophouse at 171-B Bencoolen Street, it charges rates starting from $15 a day for a bunk bed.

Instead, mid-range hotels have sprung up along the street. They include Hotel Ibis on Bencoolen, Hotel 81 and even one serviced apartment complex called Somerset Bencoolen. These establishments cater more to businessmen and travellers with some means.

‘We see a new breed of backpacker,’ said Hotel Ibis general manager Puneet Dhawan. ‘Gone are the dirty boots, quick-dry pants and backpacks as luggage.’

Today’s backpacker, hailing mainly from France, Australia and Britain, travel with laptops, iPods and luggage with wheels.

The base price for a room with Internet access at Ibis starts at $138 a night. This is at least 10 times more than the fee at Hawaii Hostel across the road.

A 55-year-old employee of Hawaii, who wanted to be known only as Mr Ng, said its customers are mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Further down the street behind some coffee shops is Peony Mansion. It offers long-term rates at $25 a day for a room. Such rooms are popular with Thais, Vietnamese, Chinese and Filipinos.

It was in one of these rooms that Filipino Pascua Roselyn, 30, was found dead two weeks ago. An Indian national has been arrested.

Asked if the incident has affected business, Mr Elavangovan Valaytham, the director of Al-Jilani Restaurant, a 24-hour coffee shop that has sold Muslim food in the area for the past 20 years, said: ‘Our regular clientele of office workers and students from Nafa still come around to enjoy their food.’

Bencoolen is home to Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ (Nafa) three campuses.

However, Mr Elavangovan said, there has been a drop in the number of customers from overseas.

‘Backpackers used to come here, but that was about 10 years ago. It’s much quieter without them around,’ he said.

He noted that guests at the new hotels do not patronise the coffee shop as ‘they usually have their meals catered for them by the hotels’.

Mr Ng at Hawaii Hostel has also noticed the declining interest from Western backpackers. He said many now stay at hostels in Little India.

In the past five years, about a dozen backpacker hostels have emerged across Rochor Canal.

It is a move welcomed by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB).

Said its executive director, hospitality, Mr Justin Chew: ‘The STB welcomes a good mix of accommodation options to cater to the needs of different segments of visitors.’

Source: Sunday Times, 28 Mar 2010

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