Speedy Growth for Cruise Tourism


More cruise ships now dock at Swettenham Pier than anywhere else in Malaysia. This offers good opportunities for Penang – but also brings some tough challenges.

Cruise ships docking at Swettenham Pier.

The weak ringgit, attractively priced hotels and George Town’s inscription as a Unesco World Heritage Site have kept Penang’s tourism industry buoyed despite the country’s economic woes.

Malaysian Airports Berhad reported 997,627 international arrivals to Penang between January and August 2017 – an 8% rise against 2016’s figure of 919,506.1 Swettenham Pier Cruise Terminal experienced a similar surge, receiving 1.35 million passengers from 270 international cruise ships in 2017, says Penang Port Commission (PPC) Chairman Datuk Tan Teik Cheng.2

Swettenham Pier edged out main competitor Port Klang to receive a total of 125 port calls from international cruise ships in the first six months of 2017, making it Malaysia’s major cruise tourism hub. (In contrast, Port Klang received only 78 port calls during that period.)

“We have the advantage of location,” says Ooi Chok Yan, Chief Executive Officer of Penang Global Tourism (PGT). “To my knowledge, Penang is the only port city in Asia that has city and port located within walking distance – it’s only a five-minute walk for the tourist to the George Town World Heritage Site upon disembarkation.”

It takes 30 minutes to clear a cruise ship in Penang. This is a gold standard for cruise ports. “It is the port’s responsibility to clear the passengers as quickly as possible so that they can have more time to explore the city during their shore excursions,” says Penang Port Chairman Datuk Syed Mohamad bin Syed Murtaza.

State Exco for Tourism Development and Culture Danny Law anticipates a 10% increase in port calls in the coming months. News of the expected arrival of 1.8 million passengers has naturally renewed discussions on facility upgrades at Swettenham Pier.3

Big Plans for the Pier

The cruise market in Asia may be relatively young, but it is growing fast. To keep up with the competition, Swettenham Pier, constituted in 1904, is due for a second redevelopment.

Discussing the growth of cruises in Asia at the inaugural CruiseWorld Asia conference, Royal Caribbean’s Managing Director for Singapore and South-East Asia, Sean Treacy, observes that “the challenge is a wall of infrastructure issues that will hinder the industry’s ability to meet the rapidly rising tide of demand – particularly with regard to port facilities”.4

Treacy explains that very few ports are able to accommodate a Quantum or Oasis-class ship, restraining Royal Caribbean’s ability to offer the full breadth of its cruise experiences. “Governments are recognising this so we’re encouraged, but the infrastructure isn’t there, and it will slow down growth. In the past, Asia was the destination for old tonnage, but now you’re seeing newer ships come into Asia, so I think the industry sees the potential of the market. But in South-East Asia, we’re going to run out of space to bring ships unless more ports are built soon,” he says.5

Swettenham Pier.

State Exco for Tourism Development and Culture Danny Law (third from left) and Penang Port Chairman Datuk Syed Mohamad bin Syed Murtaza (third from right) posing with cruise passengers.

Last March, it was announced that Royal Caribbean has joined ventures with Penang Port to upgrade and improve Swettenham Pier to accommodate larger cruise ships.6 A Penang Port spokesperson explained that the 60/40 joint venture would be jointly managed by both parties, with the majority stake to be held by Penang Port.

The RM155. 44mil project will include extending the length of existing berths to 688m from their current length of 400m. “This will enable the terminal to berth two mega cruise liners carrying over 4,900 passengers each at any one time, in line with the industry requirement as Penang comes of age as a ‘choice port of call’ for international cruise operators,” says the Penang Port spokesperson.

The project will also put emphasis on improving accessibility for the aged and physically challenged, from ship to shore. “In addition, the redevelopment will include spaces for tour buses to ease the flow of traffic in the area around Swettenham Pier. The ability to handle more and larger cruise vessels at Swettenham Pier will entrench Penang as a major cruise tourism destination in the region.”7

Murali Ramakrishnan.

Concurrently, discussions are ongoing between PPC and the state concerning the RM200mil expansion plans for Swettenham Pier. If the plans are green-lighted, an additional berth will be built.8

Spillover Effects

International cruise liners generally dock at Swettenham Pier for an average of eight to 12 hours, and the passengers’ combined spending power gives Penang’s retail sector a considerable boost. According to Tan, a survey has shown that each passenger usually spends about US$50 (RM204) while visiting Penang.9

Tourism players, including the hospitality industry, have likewise enjoyed varying degrees of spillover effects, with tour companies like Metro Bike being especially popular among cruise tourists. Offering eco-friendly bicycle and trishaw tours around George Town, the four-hour guided bicycle tour offers tourists an insight into the history of the city. “Street art, sampling local cuisine and visits to Chowrasta Market and traditional traders are also on the itinerary,” says Ken Khor, the marketing director of Metro Bike.

Shangri-La’s Golden Sands Resort in Batu Ferringhi has reportedly struck a deal with major cruise ships that call on Swettenham Pier to become a “beach hub” for their passengers.10 The resort’s communication director, Suleiman Tunku Abdul Rahman, explains, “Cruise ship arrival rates are reshaping our tourism economic pie. And even though we are a beach resort, a little imagination will still lead us to benefit from the change.”

This “benefit” allows cruise tourists to have access to the beach resort’s facilities. “They can use our pool, shower rooms, restaurants and all other facilities. After being at sea for weeks, they would want to get rid of their sea legs and feel the sand or grass between their toes. They don’t need hotel rooms, but are still able to enjoy the comforts of a resort while roaming around Batu Feringghi.” At present, the resort is the only one of its kind to offer its facilities to cruise ship travellers.11

The F&B industry is slowly but surely tapping into the growing cruise market as well. Sadie Yeoh, general manager of Destination Asia Malaysia, explains that while Asian cruise visitors are open to trying out local hawker fare, Westerners however are somewhat more ambivalent: “It all depends on where they come from. Australians, because of their geographical proximity to Malaysia, are more likely to be adventurous with their food choices than, say, the Germans.”

Mrs Chandran, who operates an Indian rice stall at Sri Weld Food Court, agrees: “Hawker stalls selling Chinese dishes are more preferred by the cruise tourists. I believe it is because they are unaccustomed to our spices. They would usually order noodle dishes and beverages instead.”

Tour company Metro Bike is especially popular among cruise tourists.

George Town's Clan Jetties.

On the other hand, the recently opened Saigon Bowl along Lebuh Pantai has been steadily drawing in cruise customers. “Our business increases at least 20%-30% whenever cruises come in. Usually just before boarding, they would come by for a bowl of pho or just for drinks to unwind after taking in the sights,” says owner Eugene Tian.

The Downside

Residents of George Town have a problematic relationship with its visitors. The Clan Jetties’ occupants is a case in point – its popularity as a tourist attraction has forced some tenants, fed up with tourists venturing uninvited into their homes, to move away, their vacant dwellings replaced by souvenir shops.

Concerns are mounting. “Decision-makers have not come to a consensus about what the ideal number of tourists we should be bringing into the island should be. I believe this must be addressed before discussing the cruise terminal upgrades,” says Murali Ramakrishnan, the programme director of Think City.

“A case in point is Venice. I have been to the Floating City and it feels as though you’re in a big mall because that is what it has been reduced to. Residents have moved out; the city no longer has a soul; every house has either been turned into a restaurant, a trinket shop, a cafe or a bar. Now, even residents from outside of Venice are demanding for cruise tourism to stop.

Directional signage is displayed around the city to help free, independent tourists navigate with ease.

Infrastructure upgrades to Swettenham Pier are vital to attract more international cruise liners.

“I believe these are cycles, and Venice has gone through the cycle of mass tourism and is now looking at ways to get out of it. I think more dialogue should be held concerning policy considerations. Strategies like zoning can discourage hotels and cafes from setting up shop on specific streets. Grants and high assessment rates can also deter people from moving into certain areas of the city. Essentially, there has to be a top-down directive from the council in order for these policies to be effectively implemented.”

Managing Mass Tourism

Collaborative measures between stakeholders and tour operators are crucial to quell public anxiety and foster thoughtful handling without adversely affecting George Town. “It’s a common public perception that when a cruise comes in, the passengers would disembark all at once. But that’s not the case,” says Ooi. “Cruise travellers make up two categories: those who have signed up for tour packages, and the free, independent tourists (FITs). The former will disembark first to be taken sightseeing by tour guides. The FITs, on the other hand, explore the city on their own time and pace.

“It needs to be stressed that George Town is just one of Penang’s many attractions. It is unlikely that you will have a few thousand tourists choking our streets en masse at one time.”

Jalan Pintal Tali was one of the focus areas to remove blockages along George Town's fivefoot ways.

To encourage mass tourism dispersal from within the heritage zone, tour products must also be attractively packaged. “No tour package is one-size-fits-all. We closely study the passenger demographics to determine what their interests are and balance it with our aim of creating sustainable tourism,” says Destination Asia Malaysia’s Sadie Yeoh.

“For instance, the Tree Top Walk at The Habitat Penang Hill is a must-visit for nature lovers. For the culturally inclined, visits will be scheduled to the clock, songket and joss stick makers – this is our way of helping to preserve the heritage trades – as well as a tour along the Street of Harmony.”

Cruise tourists wanting to indulge in some retail therapy can also take advantage of the free shuttle bus service from Komtar to Batu Kawan, where the northern region’s first premier outlet mall, Design Village, is located. “We want to ensure everyone in the community benefits from the cruise tourism industry,” Yeoh adds.

Cruise season lasts from November to April, coinciding with the school holidays. The influx of local and foreign tourists often results in bumper-to-bumper traffic around the pier. “During such times, the People’s Volunteer Corps (Rela) will be recruited to manage traffic flow,” says Law. “Special arrangements will also have to be made if more than two cruise ships are scheduled to be coming in simultaneously. What this means is that some roads around the Fort Cornwallis area have to be converted for one-way traffic and specific parking locations have to be reserved for the tour buses.”

Ooi adds that PGT is working closely with Penang Port to display directional signage within the port area to guide cruise tourists to the waiting tour buses. “This will speed up cruise tourist dispersal. Additionally, a tour guide and a mobile kiosk will be stationed at the port during port calls for map distributions and to answer passenger enquiries. Beyond this, directional signage is also displayed around the city for the FITs to navigate with ease, including locating the nearest pedestrian traffic lights and bus stops for the free Central Area Transit buses.” a tour guide and a mobile kiosk will be stationed at the port during port calls for map distributions and to answer passenger enquiries. 

The Penang Island City Council (MBPP) is monitoring the need to install more pedestrian traffic lights along busy streets, and is removing obstructions – both fixed and movable – along George Town’s five-foot ways to improve pedestrian mobility under the Pedestrian is King campaign. “Even if the five-foot way is not completely cleared, there must be enough space for a wheelchair to pass through,” explains campaign supervising councillor Muhammad Bakhtiar Wan Chik.

Muhammad Bakhtiar Wan Chik.

Last year, a Key Performance Indicator was set to remove at least 10% of the 600 obstructions identified by the city council. The focus areas included Jalan Pintal Tali and Lorong Prangin. By mid-December 2017, 64 blockages were successfully removed, including the demolition of a wall owned by the Khoo Kongsi along Lebuh Acheh.12

The MBPP will be removing an additional 120 obstructions within the heritage zone in 2018. “We want to raise awareness on how blocking the five-foot ways is unfair to pedestrians and wrong under the council’s Street, Drainage and Building Act 1974.

But the programme is not without its challenges: landlords are reluctant to remove gates, grills and roller shutters for fear of attracting homeless people to seek refuge within their premises; hygiene is also a cause for concern.

To ensure George Town functions optimally, MBPP, with Think City’s assistance, is also exploring new ideas for infrastructure improvements. Murali explains: “A prime example is the better management of traffic and tourists. This includes designating specific areas to station chartered buses in order to mitigate traffic congestion and arranging for the pedestrianisation of certain streets to guarantee seamless walkability while also exploring the option of superblocks (as suggested by Bakhtiar), just like in Barcelona.”

With proper management and continuous dialogue between stakeholders and residents, cruise tourism – and mass tourism, for that matter – can actually be welcome for Penang, with positive spillover effects instead of grouchy residents and a shell of a city.

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton.
1 www.thestar.com.my/business/businessnews/ 2017/12/11/higher-tourist-arrivals-inpenang/# zpHwJfJFlurehGp5.99.

2 www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/12/16/ more-liners-to-visit-penang-island-set-towelcome18- million-passengers.

3 www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/12/16/ more-liners-to-visit-penang-island-set-towelcome18- million-passengers.

4 www.webintravel.com/cruiseworld-asiainfrastrucure- cruise-industry-growth.

5 Ibid.

6 www.thesundaily.my/news/2197663.

7 Ibid.

8 www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/ article/penang-port-commission-has-rm200mexpansion- plans-for-swettenham-piercruis# O07Oh1Tp4POB9MDK.97.

9 www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/12/16/ more-liners-to-visit-penang-island-set-towelcome18- million-passengers.

10 www.thestar.com.my/metro/ community/2017/08/10/tapping-the-growingmarket- for-cruise-tourism.

11 Ibid.

12 www.thestar.com.my/metro/ community/2017/04/20/hammering-home-amessage.

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