Why I Chose A Career In Tourism Even When Borders Were Closed For Most Of 2021

Joining the tourism industry

In any other timeline, the streets of Orchard and local attractions would be jam-packed with tourists who flock here to escape their dreary winters. Alas, you and I are stuck in this universe where the malls downtown are only open to those who have been double-dosed with the vaccine.

Without a doubt, the tourism industry has truly felt the pinch of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the border restrictions did not deter fresh graduates like Irwin Tan from pursuing a career in tourism. As we slowly settle into a status quo with the gradual launch of Vaccinated Travel Lanes, here’s his story:

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Had dreams of being a radio DJ or a career in marketing

Irwin (far right) used to host talk shows on Radio Heatwave, a Ngee Ann Polytechnic radio station.
Image credit: Ngee Ann Polytechnic Radio Heatwave

The tourism industry was far from the ultimate dream for Irwin. After all, he initially had dreams to become a radio DJ and majored in communication studies while he was in university. 

It was during his time at NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information that he discovered a love for all things advertising, leading him to land internships at SGAG and the creative agency TBWA. But in his final year, he realised he needed to broaden his horizons.

One of the greatest pieces of advice I received was never to jump in and settle for the first thing that interests me, instead be open to trying out different things,” he explained. 

So instead of exclusively looking for advertising and marketing job opportunities, he expanded the scope of his job hunt. This is when the Singapore Tourism Board’s Management Associate Programme (MAP) landed in his lap.

Like anyone entering an unfamiliar industry, he had worries about whether he could adapt. “One of my key concerns was the fact that I didn’t have an understanding of business concepts like a business major might have,” Irwin explained. It was only after speaking to a friend who was already in the MAP that he gained the confidence to apply.

“That actually helped with setting a bit more context, and it seemed that there would be a lot of opportunities to learn on the job,” he added. There was also no strict need for any industry experience on his resume. “What they are looking out for is your attitude towards work and the way that you analyse things.”

So in December 2019, Irwin signed a contract to try his hand in the tourism industry with the MAP’s 2020 batch. And we all know what happened after.

Covid-19 hit just as he started working in tourism

Irwin and his batch of management associates welcoming the 2021 batch of MAs
Image credit: Irwin Tan

Imagine you’re all packed and ready for the holiday of your dreams, only to find out your flight has been cancelled indefinitely as you arrive at the airport. That’s kind of what happened to Irwin, whose commencement of his MAP was set to begin in August 2020. The world’s borders were starting to close, forcing travel and tourism to a screeching halt.

Still, Irwin carried on with the programme. “The work of tourism doesn’t actually come to a standstill even in the wake of Covid-19,” he explained when I asked why. “There are even more things to do especially with the need to pivot our tourism focus, such as building up our local experience capabilities, as well as ensuring our top-of-mind destination consideration.”

In actual fact, there was more work to be done, given that they were navigating completely new territory. Travel borders had never been strictly closed for so long, and in Irwin’s eyes, there was so much more to uncover locally.

“While we do have a broad base of established tourism experiences, there is now a greater focus on making them known and appealing more to domestic audiences,” Irwin said. He sees this as a satisfying challenge to tackle and create more opportunities in the tourism industry.

Reimagining what tourism is and trying new things

Irwin at the TravelRevive trade show in 2020
Image credit: Colossal Pro

Most of his training was conducted virtually, and even while working from home, he was able to experience working as part of different departments within STB. He was attached to the Industry Marketing team for the first half of his MAP. After which he rotated to the Wellness team under the Experience Development Group.

Yeah, who knew the tourism board had a Wellness arm? But his job scope is more than organising yoga sessions for his colleagues, Irwin quickly clarified. “We want Singapore to be a city that embraces wellbeing and offers accessible and quality experiences to rejuvenate locals as well as visitors,” he explained.

When he was assigned to this new department, he noticed the many unique activities that could improve our personal wellness – perfect for burnt-out office workers who have been begrudgingly waiting out Covid-19.

So where can we go to rejuvenate ourselves?

“I would check out Palm Avenue Float Club for their floatation therapy,” Irwin recommended to me. “It’s a super interesting concept where you get to experience weightlessness and relaxation in a floating pod.” He also suggested the Trapeze Rec Club for those looking at a one-stop space for all things wellness like an outdoor sauna, cold plunge pool, and reflexology lounge.

Palm Ave Float Club lets you experience float therapy to relieve mental stress
Image credit: @palmavefloatclub

Irwin’s day-to-day work also involves acquiring partnerships, with his first being a collaboration with ClassPass in August 2021 to highlight the many wellness experiences in Singapore.

This partnership was important to him, especially in the wake of greater calls for mental health care and physical fitness in Singapore. And since we aren’t expecting an influx of visitors coming through Changi Airport anytime soon, this tie-up raises awareness of what Singaporeans can do to support local businesses and restore their inner zen.

Doing this made him feel like it wasn’t time to give up on the tourism industry, as there were plenty of new and interesting opportunities to get creative while also putting his former marketing experience to good use.

With the recent news of more Vaccinated Travel Lanes opening up, Irwin is hopeful that Singapore is a step closer to its goal of becoming a leading urban wellness destination.

“It’s about reimagining tourism and correcting the notion that wellness is just all about beaches and nature. You don’t always have to be in forested areas secluded from everywhere,” he added. “Wellness is a state of mind that can be achieved even in the urbanity of Singapore, and that’s what makes Singapore special.”

Exploring a career in tourism with Singapore Tourism Board

Jumping head-first into the tourism industry in the middle of a global pandemic was not a light decision. But Irwin believes that it was the right call. 

“The work is plentiful and purposeful which drives me even more because I know that my hard work contributes to a greater cause,” he added. “I wouldn’t say it was a hard call to make with all these in mind.”

It also helped that he had the backing of Singapore Tourism Board’s Management Associate Programme to facilitate his career transition and development. And contrary to any preconceived notions about STB, there are no hard and fast rules that require incoming associates to have prior tourism experience – applications are open to students from all fields of study. Irwin certainly didn’t have any and it worked out.

“I was very fortunate to be in a team where my direct boss helped me understand more about the tourism industry and what to be looking out for,” he said about the learning curve.

The 12-month programme has associates going through two 21-week rotations in different departments to gain experience across STB’s disciplines and to work with various stakeholders. Once that’s complete, associates will then be tagged to a division to further develop their expertise in that area, whether it’s in Technology Transformation, Experience Development, or even Policy and Planning.

While Irwin is enjoying his current stint within the Wellness team, he’s looking forward to rotate around the board in a couple of years time to expand his scope of work. “I haven’t really dived into marketing in STB yet, so that’s an area where I’ll like to try out for my next run,” he said, excited about the prospect of pursuing a role in his area of expertise.

Find out more about the Management Associate Programme here


Applications for the Management Associate Programme are open till 31st December 2021.

This post was brought to you by the Singapore Tourism Board.
Cover image adapted from: Irwin Tan, Colossal Pro

Josiah Neo

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