How an ex-commando trainer from Singapore is changing tourism in the Pacific

James S.C. Goh (Photo: Alii Palau Airlines)

While the superpowers and regional actors jostle for influence in the Pacific Ocean, Singapore and an ex-commando trainer may play a key role in changing the tourism landscape there.

In September, the new Alii Palau Airlines will connect the aviation hub of Singapore’s Changi Airport to pristine Palau, one of the world’s top diving destinations. Made up of some 340 islands in the Pacific Ocean, the country is a bonanza of back-to-nature attractions.

And the network is expected to grow rapidly to include direct links with other Asian cities.

“There is not a better transit hub than Changi Airport within Asia. With Singapore’s excellent connectivity, we can tap travellers from Europe, the Middle East, India and even from the United States,” says Akanksha Johri, chief financial officer of Alii Palau Airlines.

Alii means “hello” in Palauan. 

“Transit travellers cannot fault the beauty, ease, safety and quality of Changi,” adds Johri, an India-born Singapore resident who is also known as AJ.

Currently, getting to Palau involves tedious connections via Manila, Taipei or Port Moresby. Flights from Tokyo and Incheon involve an expensive and even lengthier transit in Guam, a U.S. territory. Travel time can range from 14 to 24 hours. 

While there is a seven-hour flight via Manila, this is limited to Tuesdays and Fridays. The flight arrives in Palau at an unearthly 2am, which means a wasted night of accommodation. 

On the other hand, the upcoming Singapore-to-Palau flight will take less than five hours and arrive in the day, perfect to kick-start a vacation. 

Besides the Little Red Dot’s aviation link, Alii Palau Airlines has another Singapore story that can be traced to local entrepreneur James S.C.Goh, a former Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) warrant officer and trainer, who has done business in various territories of the Pacific over the past 40 years.

He is the brainchild behind the airline. 

Subject to final approval, the inaugural commercial flight is slated for 12 September, with a posse of government officials, business partners and ground-breaking tourists. Subsequently, there will be thrice-weekly flights on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

The airline has requested morning departure time slots, subject to confirmation from the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. The return leg turns around on the same day, at about noon, and arrives in Singapore in time for passengers to have dinner.

A game changer is its luxury Airbus A319, “wet-leased” from an Abu Dhabi operator which supplies the aircraft and crew.

Configured and fitted for royalty, celebrities and football club teams, there are 32 business class seats and 18 economy class seats.

For a five-hour flight, demand for premium comfort is expected to be high, says Johri. The business class round-trip fare is a competitive US$2,500, while a ticket for an economy class seat costs US$1,500. 

In comparison, for late-September travel dates, travel platform Skyscanner’s best flight times and return fare deals between Singapore and Palau – as suggested by its algorithm – quotes US$3,140 for economy seats and US$4,623 for business fares.

Not only are these fares costlier, but flight times are also more cumbersome as they range from 18 to a back-breaking 26 hours, with multiple stopovers.

For the Manila-transit option, the economy class fare is US$1,019 and the business class fare is US$2,920. But this route has its shortcomings – other than the unpleasant 2am arrival in Palau, the return leg requires a six-hour red-eye layover at Manila airport.

When fully on stream, Alii Palau Airlines will offer special deals with a five-day, four-night package at US$3,100 that includes three-star accommodation (twin share) and economy seats. Also, the airline is working with travel agents such as UOB Travel Planners on other deals.

Goh, the airline’s chairman, said in an exclusive interview with The Straits Times in June: “We are already planning a second aircraft as a travel agent wants a minimum of 100 seats a flight, twice a week.”

The second aircraft is slated to be a charter flight – which is subject to a less stringent regulatory framework – and will fly from Hainan or Guangzhou to Palau, with a transit in Singapore. 

With its Palauan base and local team set-up, the airline will be the country’s flag carrier, and aims to quickly add new routes to utilise the aircraft’s capacity fully. Other direct flight destinations on the radar include Manila, Tokyo, Incheon and Hong Kong/Macau.

Ngiraibelas Tmetuchl, Palau’s Minister of Human Resources, Culture, Tourism and Development, said in an interview: “Palau offers an outstanding, unexplored destination. Our limitation is the lack of air links with major markets.”

He was in Singapore in April to finalise the air link with the Singapore authorities.

“Travellers do not want to lose vacation time on lengthy journeys or go through unpleasant transits,” he added.

Goh counts 40 years of business experience in the frontier territories of the Pacific, but he shies away from publicity and prefers to let his team do the talking. 

After being coaxed to discuss his background and exploits, he revealed that he was formerly a physical trainer (PT) with the SAF Commando unit, which is known as the best fighting unit.

Those who have gone through the army will dread the word “PT”, as it is a reminder of pain and terror. The intended outcome – a stronger and fitter physique – is often forgotten. 

After he left the army, he was lured to Palau and nearby destinations for the stellar diving. 

Soon, he struck a deal to take over the largest hotel in Palau on the cheap because it was said to be haunted. “I got a sweetheart deal. Nobody wanted to stay there,” said Goh, who declined to disclose the terms. 

Like a plot from paranormal movies, he decided to stay alone in the haunted room to make peace with the spirits and roped in monks to perform rites.

The entrepreneur then strategised to fill up the 102-room hotel by organising thrice-weekly charter flights between Taiwan and Palau. 

At the peak, his flights shuttled 90,000 Taiwanese tourists a year, accounting for most of Palau’s arrivals. After many lucrative years, he cashed out on the hotel and exited the charter flight business when the aircraft owners wanted to double the leasing rates.

Over the years, he developed a strong network that includes business leaders and the authorities of many Pacific territories.  

In between, he survived an air crash in September 2018 when the flight he was on – Air Niugini Flight 73 – slammed into the sea, 140m short of Chuuk Lagoon’s runway.  The lagoon is north-west of Papua New Guinea.

“My ankle was broken, but the adrenaline rush overwhelmed me. I helped with the opening of the emergency doors to activate the slides,” he recounts. When not in the air or underwater, he dabbles in real estate development in the region. He is planning a big return to Palau with new projects in residential and hotel development.