The HSBC Rain Vortex was turned off for more than two months during Singapore's coronavirus lockdown.
  • Singapore's Changi Airport was ranked the world's best airport for the eighth year in a row in 2020.
  • It's famous for its massive indoor waterfall, Imax theater, and wide variety of shops and restaurants.
  • Changi has tried to reinvent itself as a domestic tourist destination in the pandemic, but when I visited recently, it was mostly empty.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

In 2019, the world's best airport was at the top of its game.

That year, a record 68.3 million people passed through Singapore Changi Airport, which is known for its iconic indoor waterfall and over-the-top facilities like an Imax movie theater. At the beginning of 2020, Changi was voted the world's best airport for the eighth year in a row.

In early 2020, the world started to lock down to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Singapore, like many other countries, closed its borders to tourists. In April and May, during Singapore's Covid-19 "circuit-breaker" lockdown, Changi Airport operated at 0.5% of its usual traffic. Today, Singapore is still closed to short-term visitors except for those from a handful of countries like Australia, Taiwan, and New Zealand. 

Over the winter holidays, the airport tried to reinvent itself as a domestic tourist destination with offerings like glamping staycations in the airport and a festive market. A spokesperson for Jewel Changi Airport told Insider the offerings helped bring almost 40% more visitors to the airport in November and December than in the months before but declined to offer specific visitor numbers. 

On a recent weekday just before the start of Lunar New Year, I spent a day at Changi Airport to see what it's like at the world's best airport a year into the Covid-19 pandemic.

Singapore's Changi Airport has been voted the world's best airport for eight years in a row by Skytrax, a UK-based consultancy that ranks and reviews airports and airlines. In 2019, the airport opened its new Jewel terminal to great fanfare.

The terminal, which cost about $1.25 billion (R22 billion) and was built on top of an open-air parking lot, boasts an Imax movie theater, more than 275 shops and restaurants, and a nature-themed entertainment complex that includes a hedge maze and the world's largest indoor waterfall.

Jewel was built to increase the terminal's passenger capacity to 24 million passengers per year, which in turn boosted the airport's overall passenger capacity to 85 million passengers per year.

At the terminal's official opening ceremony in October, six months after it started operating, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Jewel had become one of Singapore's "instantly recognisable icons."

More than 50 million people had already passed through Jewel in its first six months, the prime minister said.

In 2019, a record 68.3 million people passed through Changi Airport, according to official airport statistics. That's an average of more than 187,000 people per day.

People at Changi Airport's Jewel terminal in December 2019.

Changi Airport was among the world's 20 busiest airports by passenger traffic in 2019, ahead of New York's John F. Kennedy Airport and Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, according to data analysed by the Airports Council International.

But in March 2020, as the world shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the world's best airport was left nearly deserted.

An empty arrival hall at Changi Airport on March 22, 2020.

In April and May, during Singapore's Covid-19 "circuit-breaker" lockdown, Changi Airport's passenger traffic dwindled to 0.5% of the same time period the year before, according to airport statistics.

In 2020, Changi's passenger traffic was down 82.8%.

In February 2021, just before the start of Lunar New Year, I spent an afternoon at Changi Airport to see what it was like in the world's best airport a year into the pandemic.

I had arrived in Singapore about two months prior on a work assignment but didn't see much of the airport at the time. For my second visit, I spent most of my time in the Jewel terminal, the site of the famous indoor waterfall.

I entered the airport at terminal three. The airport was quiet and empty, which wasn't a surprise - but it was still disorienting.

Instead of the typical airport sounds of rolling suitcases and echoing voices, I heard only calming instrumental music playing in the background and the sound of running water.

Eager to get my first glimpse of the indoor waterfall, I followed the sounds of water.

I had seen countless photos of it before, but seeing the HSBC Rain Vortex in person still blew my mind.

The 40-metre waterfall — it's the world's tallest indoor waterfall — cascades seven stories down from the domed ceiling at the heart of Jewel Terminal to the basement.

At night, a light and sound show is projected on the waterfall. 

The area is usually surrounded by people snapping photos and admiring the waterfall.

Visitors at the waterfall in April 2019.

But when I was there, I could count the number of visitors on one hand.

I didn't mind having the waterfall all to myself.

The waterfall is encircled by lush foliage called the Shiseido Forest Valley.

The airport's big attractions are full of not-so-subtle branding: Just as the HSBC Rain Vortex was sponsored by HSBC, the Shiseido Forest Valley is sponsored by Shiseido, a Japanese skincare, cosmetics, and fragrance company.

According to the airport's website, the scent of Shiseido's Ultimune skincare products — which sell for $140 (R2,052) for a 2.5-ounce bottle — is spritzed into the air throughout the indoor forest. I have to admit that I did not notice the smell.

Trails wind through the forest at varying levels, so visitors can take a stroll through the trees and feel like they're in a very clean, air-conditioned jungle.

The waterfall and forest valley are just one part of a larger, nature-themed entertainment complex.

On the fifth and uppermost level of Jewel is the Canopy Park, a recreational area with garden trails, slides for children, and suspended "sky nets" where people can walk across a web of woven ropes more than 24 metres above the ground.

I paid about $3.50 (R51) for a ticket — and again, I had the place virtually to myself.

One couple was braving the sky nets.

Another small group was taking photos on the glass-bottomed Canopy Bridge.

But for the most part, there seemed to be more employees around than visitors.

The Canopy Park had some whimsical touches like this purple elephant made of flowers.

Then there were the "Foggy Bowls," a collection of concave dips in an artificial grass area. If you stand in them, fog starts streaming out.

Along with a gleaming playground nearby, the Foggy Bowls are clearly an amenity designed for children's entertainment. A year into the pandemic, however, they were empty except for one fully grown journalist.

Jewel's shops and restaurants were a similar story of emptiness.

Shop employees I spoke to told me that pre-pandemic, the shops were especially busy on weekends and evenings. But now, some stores are lucky if even a couple customers come in each day.

Many of the shop employees I saw were sitting in the empty stores staring at their phones, looking bored.

This baggage storage facility was closed at the time of my visit, offering a sobering reminder of the effects of the virus on the travel industry.

A Changi spokesperson said it was temporarily closed due to the low number of travelers.

The busiest store I saw was the Apple store, and even that had only a handful of shoppers.

There seemed to be more red-shirt employees than shoppers.

Singapore has two other Apple stores: one in the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel and another on Orchard Road, the city-state's main luxury shopping thoroughfare. 

A few of the restaurants were busier than the shops, but not by much.

Nearby on the same level, the Imax movie theater didn't seem to be nearly as popular. (It's possible, though, that I happened to walk by in between showtimes and therefore wouldn't have seen people gathered outside.)

The theater is currently playing 10 movies — including "Wonder Woman 1984" and "Tom and Jerry" — at various times throughout the day from 10:30 a.m. to 9:40 p.m. A ticket costs $9 (R132) for a regular movie and $20 (R293) for an Imax showing.

The Changi Imax does have some competition: There are four other Imax theaters in Singapore, one of which is in the central Orchard area.

As the afternoon wore on, I started seeing small groups of teenagers wandering around.

I found it funny and reassuring that going to hang out at the mall — even if it's an airport mall and even if it's in a pandemic — is a universal experience.

The liveliest part of the entire Jewel terminal was the underground food court.

Most of the stalls appeared to be open and many were taking orders from customers. 

If I've learned one thing during my brief time in Singapore, it's that this city loves underground food courts and shopping centers.

Things may be starting to look up slightly for Singapore's tourism industry as vaccines begin to roll out. But Changi Airport and the rest of the city-state won't be getting back to normal anytime soon.

A cyclist takes a photo in front of the Merlion statue in Singapore on January 4, 2021.

Singapore's efforts to form travel bubbles with other countries have stalled, and Singapore's Tourism Board said it expects tourism arrivals and revenue to remain "weak" in 2021.

Short-term visitors are only allowed to enter Singapore from a few countries that have special arrangements with the city-state: Australia, Brunei, mainland China, New Zealand, and Taiwan.

A Changi spokesperson told me that traffic has, however, started to rise "very gradually" since June 2020. And the airport will continue to try to attract locals with new activities in the coming months and special promotions for shoppers and diners.

Singapore was the first Asian nation to approve both the Pfizer and Moderna coronavirus vaccines, and more than 250,000 of the city-state's 5.7 million people have received their first dose of a vaccine.

In August, it plans to host the World Economic Forum — the gathering of global leader's that's typically held in Davos, Switzerland — which could give the economy a much-needed boost.

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