Better Facilities Needed, Pronto!

Cruise veteran Bob Guy speaks frankly about the industry in Asia.

It takes 30 minutes to clear a cruise ship in Penang. This is a gold standard for cruise ports, and it is one of the reasons why cruise veteran Bob Guy picked Penang when asked to name his favourite port at the inaugural CruiseWorld Asia conference, held by Travel Weekly Asia, in Singapore last November.

Guy, the managing director of Destination Asia, is well known in tour operating circles in Asia. In a region where the biggest hurdle to growth in cruising is port infrastructure and facilities, Guy discusses opportunities in Penang’s growth.

Penang is your favourite port. Apart from its quick turnover time, why else?

Bob Guy.

Bob Guy: Penang has that sweet combination of Chinese, Indian and Malay cultures together with Eurasian influences. I love the environment, the people and the great food. I have my favourite char koay teow stall in Pulau Tikus and I also have great affection for some of the new places with blended cuisines. Very importantly for visitors, George Town is like a buffet with never-ending options: a little advance preparation watching YouTube will give visitors a gazetteer to plan from.

Penang, or rather George Town, is a great all-around port for full-day or combination afternoon and evening calls, which is a new innovation by cruise lines. Some lines are now arriving at 3pm and sailing off at 11pm. This is allowed by the proximity of nearby ports, which is part of essential product planning.

Local authorities have upgraded and have further plans to upgrade facilities to accommodate larger ships. While funding is an issue, they are proactive to this market. Important factors are good coach parking and direct access into town for passengers and crew.

What do you remember about Penang from the early days of cruising?

When I first went to Penang in 1972, it was like stepping back into the 1950s, even before.

We started to serve cruise ships in George Town in the very early days of the modern market (the early 1980s). At that time, the street trades of calligraphy, mask painting and clog making were still very visible, and the city has one of the great historic buildings of Asia, the Khoo Kongsi. We created a great combination for our programme, which includes a pedicab ride, a visit to the clan house and tea at the E&O Hotel. (This tour survives to this day.)

What has been the biggest change?

Like all other places in Asia, the influence of the modern world has arrived in George Town. This includes intense traffic, modern buildings and a tendency to replace historic buildings with modern monstrosities. But this has been limited to a great degree by reasonably good planning, so we have a nice blend even in the new environment.

Early visits to Penang fostered my great love for this continent. During the first visits, it was the airport in Butterworth with the ferry ride to George Town. This alone created an anticipation of things to come. I remember visits to the Snake Temple when it was all alone on the road to the airport which was then under construction. Today, the Snake Temple is hard to find among the factories.

What kind of Penang-centric activities are cruise tourists interested in?

Thanks to market sourcing from both Caucasian and Asian markets, cruise tourists are seeking a broad variety of activities, some very different from one another. Caucasians come for old Asia but with modern flourishes, while Asian guests seek other pursuits: Penang’s great food, inexpensive shopping and selfies by the monuments. We have two distinct tour product ranges for these markets.

Swettenham Pier, with Penang Bridge in the background.

What does Penang have to do to become a cruise hub on par with, say, Singapore?

I don’t think this should be attempted. My opinion is that Penang should focus on becoming the best way port in the region in the growing market for larger ships. They need a new pier to accommodate vessels of up to 5,000 guests. They also need to retrofit the existing facility, adding escalators for older customers. Also, a turnaround port (like Singapore) has a mix of excellent air access at low prices, good hotels eager to accept one or two-night stays at moderate rates and etc. Penang will never have some of those attributes so I think it is best to stay as a way port and be the best at that!

How can we ensure cruise tourism flourishes without it being too detrimental to George Town?

Destinations often don’t realise that it is the local tour operators who create the tour products (in conjunction with the cruise lines). Collaboration between the stakeholders in George Town and the tour operators would foster thoughtful handling without having too big an impact. This would include more coach parking, close alignment of product development to the key districts of George Town and good training of guides – which, outside of our company, is almost non-existent. Like most destinations, there is a lot of focus on marketing, and too little time is spent on product development.

What are your thoughts on the RM200mil expansion plans for the Swettenham Pier Cruise Terminal pending the resolution of discussions between the Penang Port Commission and the state government?

If they are serious about development, they need to be serious about developing the cruise ship facilities pronto! The weakness of Tanjung Benoa in Bali, Indonesia and Thai ports such as Phuket, Krabi, Samui and Khlong Toei is that decades-long promises never seem to come to fruition. Penang, working with nearby ports, could develop a nearly unassailable combination of ports where cruise lines could offer sailings year round.

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