In the wake of 2003’s Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Singapore, the Singapore Tourism Board announced a number of projects aimed at reinvigorating its flailing tourism industry. Among these projects was The Singapore Flyer, the giant observation wheel which was forecasted to draw 2.5 million visitors to spend $94 million in its first year.
Plans to build an observation wheel were formalised on the 27th of June 2003 when a memorandum of understanding between the Singapore Tourism Board and Singapore Land Authority was signed. The terms of the agreement meant that the tourism board would purchase a plot of land for an observation wheel and lease the land to Singapore Flyer Pte Ltd, the developer, for a period of 30 years with an option to extend the lease for a further 15 years.
The announcement of The Singapore Flyer was initially met with a measure of scepticism. For instance, a Forum letter in The Straits Times from Anil Vasudevan noted: “The Singapore Flyer, slated to be the world's largest ferris wheel, is as unoriginal as it can be. Those who take a ride would remember it not as a true Singapore experience but as a London Eye copycat. Perhaps we should heed the advice of a true visionary, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, when he said at a recent conference: 'Singapore must keep standing out from the crowd'.” This sentiment was echoed in another Forum letter by Sylvester Toh Cheng Seong who wrote that “Such high-profile plagiarism is certainly out of sync with the authorities' drive to make Singaporeans think out of the box.”
Still, those behind the Flyer’s development remained bullish. Planners, for example, thought of it as “Singapore’s Eiffel Tower’, and the marketing company promoting the Flyer guaranteed $16 million a year in ticket sales. However, while economic expectations grew, the Flyer’s physical size was somewhat stymied. The Marina Bay site was close to an air corridor leading to Paya Lebar Airbase, meaning the height limit for the Flyer was capped at 170 m above ground.
After overcoming financing difficulties, the Flyer finally opened on 15 April 2008. It was capable of hosting up to 7.3 million passengers a year, with 28 air-conditioned capsules capable of carrying 28 passengers at a time. Rotation of the wheel meant that a trip on the Flyer would take approximately 32 minutes, during which time, passengers are able to take in unobstructed views of Singapore, Johor, Batam, and Bintan (according to a report in The Straits Times).
While initial response was positive, the Flyer still underwent a change in feng shui shortly after its opening. On 4 August 2008, the direction of the wheel’s rotation was reversed and the Flyer began revolving clockwise when viewed from Marina Centre. This change was a made on the advice of feng shui masters, who observed that the Flyer faced the business district when rising and the sea when descending. This implied that it was turning its back on the financial district which negatively impacted Singapore’s economy since qi was being drawn away from the nation. With the directional change, it is now believed that fortune was being collected for Singapore instead.
The fortunes of the Flyer, however, did not improve. On 23 December 2008, 173 passengers were trapped in flyer’s capsules for six hours due to a technical malfunction caused by an electrical fire in the control room. Two passengers were hospitalised, but discharged the following day. That incident prompted authorities to close the Flyer for investigations and it was only a month later on 26 January 2009 that the Flyer was given permission to reopen. In its first 10 years of operation, there had been at least 6 known breakdowns and stoppages, with the longest period of closure being about two months in early 2018.
In 2010, the owners of the Flyer began suffering financial difficulties and by 2013, it was widely acknowledged that the Singapore Flyer had lost its lustre. Food and beverage as well as retail outlets that occupied the base of the Flyer suffered from poor business and began moving out. Analysts and tour guides, quoted in The Straits Times, were of the opinion that the Singapore Flyer was not attractive to locals, did not encourage repeat visitors, while ticket prices were too high.
In May 2013, the company operating the Singapore Flyer was placed under receivership and put the Flyer up for sale. On August 2014, the Flyer was finally acquired by Straco Leisure Pte. Ltd. These new owners have attempted to inject new energy to the Flyer through the introduction of an anchor tenant such as the nightclub, Zouk, but have been as yet unsuccessful. The Singapore Flyer’s lease expires in 2033.