Slow going at Marina South Pier

Boat operators say location hard to reach, lacks appeal of Clifford Pier
Walter Sim Straits Times 18 Oct 13;

IT HAS been seven years since the iconic Clifford Pier ceased its ferry services.

But boat operators, who have since moved to Marina South, still reminisce about the good old days in the heart of the Central Business District, where business was better and life was more convenient.

Mr Chua Meng Chuan, the owner of CKL Motor Boat, believes the new pier lacks the appeal of Clifford Pier, which was renowned for its art deco facade.

''Marina South Pier is not a tourist attraction. We do not get many walk-in customers,'' said the 58-year-old, who has been in the family business for over 40 years.

He took over from his father, who was a pioneering entrepreneur when Clifford Pier, fondly referred to as Ang Teng Beh Tao (red lamp pier in Hokkien) due to the lights used to direct sea vessels, first opened in 1933.

In the early days, the bustling pier was a landing point for immigrants. It was also where goods made their way in and out of Singapore, and the departure point for tourists who wanted to visit the Southern Islands.

After a 73-year run, the pier was closed on March 31, 2006, to make way for the construction of other Marina Bay projects, such as the Barrage. The building, conserved by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, has been converted into the Fullerton Bay Hotel.

On the other hand, the three-storey Marina South Pier, which opened on April 1 the same year, is a testament to modernity, with a roof built to look like waves. It houses the $5 million Singapore Maritime Gallery, which was opened last September and showcases maritime achievements in Singapore. Admission to the 1,000 sq m museum, run by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, is free.

Also moored at the pier is a riverboat modelled after the steamers which once travelled the Mississippi River in the US. The Stewords Riverboat, which used to be owned by the A&W fast-food franchise in the 1990s and was originally anchored at Sentosa, hosts two restaurants.

Despite this, the crowds are no longer coming like they did at Clifford Pier. Businesses say that tourist numbers are dwindling, while private charters to the Southern Islands is ''practically non-existent''.

Instead, they stay afloat by offering ferry services to commercial vessels and arranging charters for school excursions to the Southern Islands and Pulau Semakau to visit the landfill. Increasingly, they also work with funeral parlours to take grieving families out to sea to scatter the ashes of the departed.

''People used to be able to walk to Clifford Pier from nearby attractions such as the Merlion and Lau Pa Sat,'' said 64-year-old Michael Goh, operation executive of Singapore Island Cruise & Ferry Services, the only one running regular scheduled ferry trips to Kusu and St John's islands.

He explained how at least 80 per cent of customers in the past were tourists. ''Seeing the boats, they sometimes think it would be a good idea to charter one to head out to the Southern Islands for a quick tour,'' he said.

During the Kusu pilgrimage in the ninth lunar month, which this year runs from Oct 5 to Nov 2, trips to St John's are halted to free up boats. Even so, numbers have been dwindling. There were 47,000 pilgrims last year, down from 77,000 in 2007 and more than 136,000 in 2001.

Stewords Riverboat owner Eric Saw, 62, said that he stopped lunchtime operations a year ago because ''no one came''. He relies on hosting more private functions to ''make up for the difference''.

Business for Watertours, which runs cruises aboard the Cheng Ho, a replica of a Ming Dynasty imperial vessel, has also suffered after moving to Marina South. Operation supervisor Effa Edros, 37, said business is sustained by bookings from hotels, as it cannot rely on walk-ins. ''On some days we have no bookings at all,'' she said.

The reason for the lack of interest?

Businesses blame a lack of public transport to the area and the ''never-ending construction''. Only one bus - SBS Service 402 - connects the pier to Marina Bay MRT. Usually it takes 25 minutes between buses, although the frequency increases to every 10 minutes during the peak Kusu pilgrimage season.

With fewer than 50 spaces, parking for cars is also limited.

Boat operators also lament the lack of meal options, the unavailability of automated teller machines, and an ''impractical'' design which sees the indoor parts of the pier getting wet during rainstorms.

Mr Henry Lim, 58, who has been with boat operator Leng Launches for 38 years, revealed that until an eatery opened two weeks ago there, employees had to make the lengthy trek to the city for lunch.

''We cannot afford to eat at the restaurants every day,'' added Mr Toh Beng Chuan, 65, a boat operator of 51 years, referring to the outlets on the riverboat. ''We used to have places such as Lau Pa Sat and Golden Shoe Market nearby when we were at Clifford.''

Businesses are now pinning their hopes on new transport developments, including an MRT station on the pier's doorstep, to bring back the crowds.

The Marina South Pier MRT is slated to open next year as part of the North South Line extension.

Meanwhile, the Marina Coastal Expressway is also scheduled to open by year-end.

''This is hard to predict, but of course, we hope with their opening the situation will be better,'' said Mr Lim.

One thing will not change however. The organisation serving the interests of the 17 boat operators in Marina South will continue to be known as the Singapore Clifford Pier Motor Boat Association.

Said CKL Motor's Mr Chua, who is the association's secretary: ''It is always good that we have something to hold onto.''