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Sentosa Island Then and Now: A Journey Through Time

Updated: Apr 17

Cars driving along Sentosa Singapore Gateway
Credit: flickr - William Cho

Sentosa, a renowned island resort in Singapore, known for its beautiful beaches, lush greenery, and an array of exciting attractions that cater to people of all ages, has been attracting visitors from all over the world for decades. With over 19 million visitors in 2019 alone, Sentosa has become an integral part of Singapore's tourism industry, generating billions of dollars in revenue and providing employment opportunities to thousands of people.

In this blog, we will be exploring the rich history and evolution of Sentosa, from its humble beginnings as a fishing village to its transformation into a world-class resort destination. We will take a closer look at the various attractions that Sentosa has to offer, including the Universal Studios theme park and luxurious Resorts World Sentosa. We will also delve into the island's cultural and natural heritage like the historical Fort Siloso.

Sentosa Island is not just a place for fun and relaxation, it is also a symbol of Singapore's remarkable growth and development over the years. By exploring Sentosa’s past and present in this article, we hope to help you gain a deeper understanding of Sentosa's significance and its contribution to Singapore's tourism industry and the broader economy.

Historical Context

The British military lining up at the Royal Garrison Artillery barracks at Blakang Mati in 1915.
Credit: (National Museum of Singapore)

Sentosa Island has a rich history dating back to the 19th century. The island was originally known as Pulau Blakang Mati, which translates to "Island of Death Behind" in Malay. It was named as such due to its reputation as a place where pirates and diseases were rampant.

During the early colonial period, Chinese, Malay and Bugis communities inhabited the island of Sentosa in their small villages. A British signal station was also present on the island in those times. However, by 1848, only two Bugis households out of the original population of about sixty people were left on the island due to an unknown sickness, thought to be malaria, which wiped out most of the staff working at the British signal station. Thus, causing the British to abandon the island.

Years later in the 1880s, three artillery forts – Forts Serapong, Connaught and Siloso were built on the island and by the 1930s, the place was used as the base for the Royal Artillery units in Singapore.

However, during World War II and the Battle of Singapore, Sentosa was occupied by the Japanese army and was used as a prisoner-of-war camp. Additionally, a beach on Sentosa was a site used to carry out Operation Sook Ching which murdered large numbers of Chinese. It was a dark period in the island's history as countless lives were lost and atrocities were committed. Today, the island serves as a reminder of the bravery and resilience of those who endured such hardships.

After the war, Sentosa was returned to the British and continued to serve as a military base. However, in the 1960s, the Singaporean government decided to transform the island into a tourist destination in order to boost the country's economy. The government began rebranding the island and renamed it Sentosa, which means "peace and tranquillity" in Malay.

Bird’s eye view of Sentosa Golf Club
Credit: SMBC Singapore Open

The transformation of Sentosa began in the 1970s and 1980s with the opening of various leisure attractions such as the Sentosa Golf Club and Fantasy Island. The Sentosa Golf Club, which opened in 1974, was the first golf club in Singapore and has since become a popular destination for golf enthusiasts. Fantasy Island, which opened in 1994, was a themed attraction park that featured rides and shows, including the popular "Songs of the Sea" show which ran for over a decade.

During this time, the government also initiated various infrastructure developments on Sentosa, such as the construction of a causeway connecting the island to mainland Singapore. Other infrastructure including hotels, restaurants and transportation services were also invested heavily in to better cater to tourists.

These developments were successful in drawing visitors to Sentosa, and the island soon became one of the most popular tourist destinations in Singapore. The island's tropical beaches and theme parks attracted both locals and foreigners alike, and it became known as a place for relaxation, entertainment, and fun.

Recent Developments

Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island has come a long way since its early days as a military base and a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. Today, Sentosa continues to evolve as a tourist destination with the opening of new attractions and developments, being one of Singapore's most popular tourist destinations, attracting millions of visitors every year. One of the biggest factors behind Sentosa's success as a tourist destination has been the development of world-class attractions on the island, including Universal Studios Singapore and Resorts World Sentosa.

Bird’s eye view of Resorts World Sentosa
Credit: Visit Singapore

Resorts World Sentosa, an integrated resort, is another major development on the island, offering visitors a wide range of attractions, including hotels, casinos, and restaurants. The complex opened in 2010, also features a large aquarium called the S.E.A. Aquarium, which is home to more than 100,000 marine animals from over 1,000 species. Visitors can also enjoy a range of water activities at Adventure Cove Waterpark, including swimming, snorkelling, and water slides.

Rides and attractions at Universal Studios Singapore (USS)
Credit: Sentosa Singapore

Opened in 2011, Universal Studios Singapore is one of the most exciting attractions on Sentosa Island, offering visitors a chance to experience the magic of movies and TV shows in real life. The park features rides and attractions based on popular movies and TV shows, including Transformers, Jurassic Park, and Shrek. Visitors can also enjoy live performances and shows, as well as dining and shopping experiences. Since its opening, Universal Studios Singapore has been a major draw for tourists from all over the world and has helped to cement Sentosa's reputation as a world-class entertainment destination.

The addition of these new attractions has had a significant impact on Sentosa's tourism industry and the broader Singaporean economy. In 2019, Sentosa received over 19 million visitors, contributing over $1.5 billion of the total S$27.7 billion of Singapore's tourism revenue. This represented around 4% of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The island has also created many job opportunities in the hospitality and service sectors, providing employment for many Singaporeans, and supporting around 164,000 jobs in Singapore in 2019. This represented around 3.2% of the country's total employment.

In addition to the economic benefits, Sentosa's tourism industry has also helped to promote Singapore as a global destination for tourism and business. The island's world-class attractions and facilities have helped to attract high-spending tourists and business travellers, who often spend several days or weeks in Singapore, visiting other attractions and attending conferences and events. Hence answering the question of why Sentosa is a tourist attraction.

Challenges and Opportunities

Sentosa Singapore staff taking part in a beach clean up
Credit: AsiaOne

Despite its success as a top tourist destination in Singapore, Sentosa faces several challenges as it continues to develop and grow. One of the biggest challenges is competition from other destinations in the region. Many other countries in Southeast Asia like Bali, Phuket and Hong Kong are investing heavily in their tourism industries, building new attractions, and improving infrastructure. This means that in order to remain competitive, Sentosa must continue to innovate and offer unique experiences to attract visitors.

The success of these developments can also be attributed to the efforts of the Sentosa Development Corporation. The corporation has worked closely with developers to ensure that the island's natural beauty and heritage are preserved. For example, the corporation has implemented measures to protect the island's marine environment, including the installation of artificial coral reefs. The corporation has also worked to promote the island's heritage and culture through events such as the Sentosa Heritage Festival.

Leading to another challenge for Sentosa is the need to balance development with sustainability. As a small island, there is limited space for new developments, and there are concerns about the impact of tourism on the island's environment and local community. In recent years, Sentosa has taken steps to address these concerns and ensure that its growth is sustainable.

Man using reverse vending machine to recycle at Sentosa Singapore
Credit: Sentosa Development Corporation

One initiative that Sentosa has implemented is the adoption of sustainable practices in its operations. This includes reducing energy and water consumption, managing waste and promoting recycling, and using environmentally-friendly materials. For example, Sentosa has installed solar panels on several of its buildings to reduce its carbon footprint, and it has introduced a green transportation system that uses electric vehicles and bicycles.

Sentosa has also launched initiatives to promote responsible tourism and educate visitors about sustainability. The island has partnered with various organisations to organise beach clean-up activities and raise awareness about marine conservation. It has also introduced ecotourism activities, such as guided nature walks and bird-watching tours, to encourage visitors to appreciate the island's natural beauty and biodiversity.

In addition to sustainability, Sentosa is also looking for new opportunities to diversify its offerings and attract a wider range of visitors. One of the key initiatives is the development of new attractions and experiences. In recent years, Sentosa has invested heavily in new attractions, such as the AJ Hackett Sentosa Bungy Tower, iFly Singapore, and Mega Adventure Park.

Woman having a simulated skydiving experience at iFly Singapore with instructor
Credit: Sentosa Singapore

Another major development is the expansion of Resorts World Sentosa, which is a major integrated resort on the island. In 2019, the resort completed a major expansion that included the addition of two new hotels, a new theme park, and a larger casino. The expansion has significantly increased the resort's capacity and boosted Sentosa's tourism industry.

Sentosa is also exploring new markets and partnerships to attract more visitors. For example, the island has been actively promoting itself as a destination for MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions) events, and it has been working with travel agencies and airlines to develop new packages and promotions.

Despite the challenges that Sentosa faces, the island has shown remarkable resilience and adaptability over the years. Its ability to continuously innovate and evolve has been key to its success as a leading tourist destination in Singapore. As the island continues to grow and develop, it will be important for it to balance growth with sustainability and to continue offering unique and memorable experiences for visitors.

Sentosa’s success from its rich history is a testament to Singapore's vision and commitment to developing a thriving tourism industry. However, as Sentosa faces new challenges and opportunities in the years ahead, it will be important for the island to remain flexible, innovative, and sustainable in its approach to growth and development. By doing so, it can continue to be a top destination for visitors from around the world while preserving its natural beauty and heritage for future generations to enjoy.


Sentosa Island has a rich history and has evolved significantly over time from its humble beginnings. From its use as a military base during World War II to becoming a premier tourist destination in Singapore, Sentosa has undergone a remarkable transformation. Today, it is a top destination for tourists from all over the world, becoming a thriving leisure and entertainment hub that offers a unique blend of natural beauty, history, and modern attractions.

The evolution of Sentosa Island over time has been driven by a combination of factors, including changes in Singapore's economy, advancements in technology, and increasing competition from other destinations. However, despite these challenges, Sentosa has remained resilient and has continued to innovate, adapt, and grow.

With the opening of Universal Studios Singapore and Resorts World Sentosa, these world-class attractions have brought new life to the island and have helped to solidify Sentosa's reputation as a must-visit tourist destination. The impact of these developments has been felt not only in Sentosa but also throughout the broader Singapore economy, creating jobs and boosting tourism revenue.

With much success, challenges and bumps in the road are bound to occur. From the competition faced by neighbouring countries to the growing balance of development and sustainability, Sentosa was able to successfully overcome each challenge. Sentosa’s achievements have helped to conserve the island and our future generations are now able to enjoy the attractions in a carefree manner.

Despite these challenges, Sentosa has implemented several initiatives and strategies to address them and seize new opportunities. For example, the island has launched the Sentosa Development Corporation to oversee its development and growth, with a focus on sustainability and innovation. Sentosa has also invested in new attractions and experiences, such as the Sentosa Cable Car Sky Network that you can take to access the island and the Sentosa Islander Membership Programme, which offer unique and exciting ways for visitors to experience the island.

In conclusion, Sentosa's importance to Singapore's tourism industry cannot be overstated, and its evolution over time reflects the country's broader economic and social development. As Singapore continues to grow and evolve, Sentosa will remain a key player in the country's tourism industry and a symbol of its success.

So, if you are looking for a unique and exciting holiday destination, consider visiting Sentosa Island. With its pristine beaches, lush greenery, world-class attractions, and rich history, Sentosa is truly a one-of-a-kind destination that one would not want to miss.

Want to know more?

If you would like to continue discovering Singapore with us and finding out more interesting stories our country has to offer, feel free to check out our Bespoke and Customised Tours! Check out our previous blog articles to read more on Singapore’s history and what it has to offer! If you have any enquiries, do drop us an email at

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