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Can visiting Singapore save the planet?

Travel News from Stuff - 28-11-2022

We’re walking through the world’s largest glass greenhouse, Singapore’s Flower Dome, with our guide Dino, when I mention my girlfriend owns 20 acres of forest back home.

He looks momentarily bewildered. “20 acres!? I love plants and gardening but all I have is a window box,” he says, laughing.

It’s understandable. Owning your own forest is inconceivable in postage stamp-sized Singapore. Consider this: New Zealand’s largest farm, Molesworth Station,is over two and half times the size of this entire country (that’s 500,000 acres versus a mere 181,200).

But while other destinations dither, Singapore is doubling down on going green, determined to lead the way in sustainable living and tourism. Let’s imagine your itinerary.

It starts with offsetting the carbon emissions on your flights to Singapore, by using something like Air New Zealand’s FlyNeutral programme or an independent one like .

Landing at Changi, you’re at an airport consistently lauded as one of the world’s greenest. The abundant plant life includes the Terminal 4 Green Wall with over 20,000 plant species, the Sunflower Garden at Terminal 2, and the big showstopper at Terminal 1’s Jewel: a six-acre indoor forest with walking trails and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. Yes, these are all ‘man-made nature’, but it is an airport after all.

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Anyway, you’ve now arrived at the famous ‘Garden City’. It’s a sobriquet adopted way back in 1967 when the nation’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, declared Singapore would become “an oasis in Southeast Asia… a garden city, beautiful with flowers and trees, and as tidy and litterless as can be,” setting in motion an ambition that now feels borderline clairvoyant.

You head to your hotel in your fuel-saving hybrid taxi, and your greenery-draped accommodation choices are remarkable. There’s the Park Royal Pickering Hotel, covered in a 161,000-square-foot garden; the 27-storey Oasia Downtown Hotel clad in 21 species of climbing tropical creepers; or the Park Royal Collection Marina Bay, Singapore’s original ‘garden-in-a-hotel’, now freshly renovated to maximise its green profile, with its own Urban Farm supplying 20% of the hotel’s food.

The one you can’t check into - at least not until May 2023 - is the vertical rainforest origami of the stunning Pan Pacific Orchard Hotel. Once finished, this hotel will raise the bar on high rise eco-accommodation, and feature four open-air terraces, each with their own distinct design concepts: Forest, Water, Garden and Cloud.

Grabbing an electric bike, you zip over to Gardens by the Bay, 101 hectares of horticultural wonderland, built at a cost of over $1 billion back in 2012. There are the two mega greenhouses to explore - the Flower Dome with its Mediterranean climate, and the Cloud Forest, featuring a cooler tropical mountain climate (and a Māori kūwaha carving Jacinda Ardern dropped off there earlier this year). Green credentials? Both vast greenhouses reduce energy consumption by approximately 20% compared to typical buildings by using displaced cooling technology.

Next, an elevator whisks you up to the top of a Supertree. These are bioarchitecture in action, a grove of 18 trees that look like vegetation-filled Meccano, hosting 180,000 types of plants and over 200 species of flowers.

The top of the largest features the Supertree Observatory, with panoramic views of Singapore, including the neighbouring Marina Barrage. Even that, essentially just a dam, is a bona fide tourist attraction and home to the Sustainable Singapore Gallery, where you can check out the latest intel on the country’s green initiatives.

One of the most recent is the Rail Corridor. This tree-lined track was once used for the trains running between Singapore and the Malay peninsula. While the name may need a little work, and currently only a few stretches are open, ultimately this will be a 24km-long nature trail right across Singapore, and provide an important ecological thoroughfare for wildlife.

On the other hand, the oldest green space in Singapore, and still an absolute pleasure to visit despite being a little upstaged by Gardens In The Bay, is the fabulous Botanic Gardens. Dating back to 1859, they’re still the only tropical gardens designated a Unesco World Heritage Site, and home to the pretty climbing orchid called Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim, the country's national flower.

All this eco-adventuring is hungry work. ‘Food’ and ‘Singapore’ are virtually synonyms, so you’ll be pleased to discover the local chefs are jumping aboard environmentally friendly dining faster than you can say ‘pepper crab’.

At their location downtown, SaladStop! has launched Asia’s first net carbon-zero restaurant, complete with furnishings crafted from upcycled logs, floor tiles made from recycled plastic and a machine that turns all leftovers safely into fertiliser right there on-site.

At Labyrinth, a restaurant offering a modern twist on traditional Singaporean cuisine, chef and owner Han Li Guang typifies the direction many local restaurateurs are taking. His focus is on locally sourced ingredients, grown or produced sustainably. This is no mean feat in a country that currently imports more than 90% of its food. (To counter that, the government has launched the ‘30 by 30’ initiative, aiming for 30% of nutritional needs to be produced locally by 2030.) Li Guang is also dedicated to what he calls ‘cultural sustainability’, guarding indigenous culinary traditions for future generations.

Refuelled, the green spaces to explore just keep coming: from the flora sanctuary that is the 163-square-kilometre Bukit Timah Nature Reserve to the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, a site of international importance for migratory birds, everything is designed to reinforce Singapore’s deep desire to be ‘a city in a garden’ - and to find a way to keep nature a part of every day life.

This green tourism is all very good, you say, but we just want to take the kids to Singapore for holiday, and have fun doing all the theme park classics on Sentosa Island. Well, even Singapore’s famous mega-attraction is aggressively driving down its emissions, vowing to be 100% carbon-neutral by 2030 and becoming globally recognised as a certified sustainable tourism destination.

Okay, look, the truth is we all know that travelling anywhere is pretty much an environmental crime spree, with tourism responsible for roughly of the world’s carbon emissions.

But Singapore’s eco-minded efforts are remarkable. Their latest Green Plan will see 300 acres of new parks, mandate every household be within a 10-minute walk of a green space, add miles of new cycleways, and even demand all new car registrations be clean-energy vehicles.

All this isn’t the going to save the glaciers, but small countries can still set an example. And Singapore might just be the inspiration we need as travellers - and what other cities need as a role model - in helping turn this whole hot climate mess around.

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