The tourists keep coming!


Fancy getting around George Town by trishaw?

More and more visitors are coming to Penang. Improving their mobility once they arrive is needed if Penang is to be truly accessible to its many admirers.

Despite being an island, Penang today is fortunately highly accessible. According to the Penang Tourists Survey 2014 prepared by the Sustainable Tourism Research Cluster (STRC), Universiti Sains Malaysia, the facilities that Penang offers outperformed tourists’ expectations in terms of accessibility, accommodation, tourist amenities and food. Sixty-four per cent of domestic visitors and 70% of international visitors stated that their visit was above their expectations.

Penang’s tourism sector followed the upward trend in 2014 – mainly due to an increase in the number of international tourists1. The total number of international arrivals flying into Penang International Airport (PIA) grew at an annual growth rate of seven per cent from 2007-20142. As such, the role of an international airport right on the island becomes increasingly crucial: Penang’s total number of international visitors via PIA is projected to maintain an upward trend in 2015 and 2016 (Figure 1). To accommodate this projected inundation of tourists, it is necessary to expand PIA with a second runway to offer wider air connectivity coverage within Asia.

The influx of international visitors correlates with regular festivals held in Penang. For example, Penang tends to have a steady number of arrivals from abroad during George Town Festival (GTF) that takes place usually in August every year. Consequently, the state government persistently initiates campaigns and festivals to allow tourists to uncover these hidden gems of Penang, capitalising on the Malaysia Year of Festivals (MyFest) 2015 campaign. There’s something each month – for example, the Penang Floral Festival in May, Penang Durian Festival in July, GTF in August, Food Festival in October, George Town Literary Festival in November and a horticultural exhibition on various flower species and landscaping designs in December. “We definitely can see an improvement in the number of visitors coming to Penang in 2015,” says Chin Poh Chin, the president of the Penang Tourist Guides Association (PTGA). “However, these numbers are mainly accounted for by domestic travellers driving in. To really help tourist guides, we need more group tours.” 

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Where international tourists are concerned, China has shown the largest growth – about 21% in 2014 compared to 2013, despite the disappearance of flight MH370 in March 2014 which was expected to have a negative impact on the number of tourists from China. Chinese tourists are expected to increase substantially in 2015, and a buoyant growth is expected in 2016 with the visa fee exemption period between February and December this year for Chinese tourists, as well as visa exemption for Chinese tourists who travel in groups from October 1 this year till March 31 next year. The granting of visas will also be made easier for tourists from main visitor countries with the introduction of the e-visa system3.

Concerning the arrival of the 4,000 Chinese tourists, Chin says, “The tourist guides of Penang benefited from this group tour and many Chinese-speaking tour guides were kept busy. It further helped many tour guides from KL who travelled to Penang to assist this particular tour.”

The role of Penang Port

Penang has the oldest and longest established port in Malaysia. It serves as the main gateway for shippers in the northern states of Malaysia and the southern provinces of Thailand. It is strategically located along the Straits of Malacca and hence is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world4. This is a strategic advantage in tourism, especially in terms of cruise ships.

The total number of vessels berthing and departing Penang increased by a rate of 7.1% annually from 1,725 vessels in 2011 to 2,120 vessels in 2014. In particular, nearly half of the total vessels berthed comprised of “cruises to nowhere”, followed by regional ferries (43.7%), transit international cruises (4.0%) and international cruises (2.5%) in 2014. These vessels ferried a total of about 1.22 million passengers in 2014. Of this, cruises to nowhere made up more than 60% of the total passengers. This proportion has held for the past five years, indicating a stable demand of cruises. With this, Penang’s cruise tourism is estimated to continue growing steadily in 2015 and 2016.

Karen Lai

A warm welcome is provided to tourists disembarking at the Swettenhem Pier Cruise Terminal.

According to Manoharan Cheria Kannan, head of operations at Swettenham Pier and Tanjong City Marina, “As of the moment, we are able to handle a vessel with a length of up to 500m if a single vessel is berthing. However, the biggest vessel we have berthed has been the Quantum of the Seas, with a length of 348m – the world’s second largest cruise ship. Penang Port also has plans to extend the berths 200m towards the north, besides more waterfront plans.”

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Penang's Hop-On Hop-Off bus plying the beach route

Getting around Penang

Once on the island, mobility is quite seamless. From the airport, one may take the Rapid Penang bus, rent a car, or hire taxis or limousines. The Central Area Transit (CAT) free shuttle buses in George Town, the Hop-On Hop-Off buses and the about-to-be-launched EZhopper vans are some of the options available for tourists to explore the heritage sites of Penang. However, many are also now opting for bicycles and motorbikes as ways of getting around.

Peter N., age 23, from Germany says, “I think that the Rapid Penang bus network is a good one as you can get to every important spot on the island. The buses are also quite new and clean. However, the schedules vary so much from reality and the waiting periods are quite irregular. One way to overcome this would be to use taxis; but with the traffic jams, even a taxi might not get you to the place you want to go to on time. Nevertheless, the important thing is that one can get around easily. It is just a question of pace.”

According to Danny Tan, marketing manager at Penang Global Tourism (PGT), there is another mode of transport that is often overlooked: the trishaw. He says that trishaws in Penang carry their own uniqueness. The experience of riding a trishaw in a heritage city is different from riding one in a commercial district. He emphasises that as traditional trades die off, trishaws are one of the few artefacts left that reflect both tangible and intangible heritages.

Planning for the future

As Penang’s tourism booms, more sustainable and viable ways of moving around are needed.

The Penang Public Transport Master Plan is an ambitious RM27bil project to develop a comprehensive public transport system in Penang. “This will be a ‘big bang’ approach that will involve land, sea, air and rail solutions for the people of Penang,” says Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng. And while it will definitely benefit locals, tourists stand to gain from the project as well, with seamless connectivity in the state easing the way tourists move around. With the proposed construction of new strategic road links, including the North Coast Paired Road, George Town Inner Bypass, Third Link and George Town Outer Bypass, along with comprehensive road upgrading on the mainland, traffic in the city centre will be lessened, thus allowing road space to be used for pedestrianised streets, bus lanes and the construction of a tram network5.

The successful implementation of the Transport Master Plan will be vital in ensuring the viability and continuity of Penang’s economy and tourism, and quality of life as we move towards becoming a metropolitan city a la Singapore, Kyoto and Adelaide. 

Karen Lai


Penang Tourist Survey 2014, Sustainable Tourism Research Cluster (STRC), Universiti Sains Malaysia

Penang Economic Report 2014/2015, Unit Perancang Ekonomi Negeri Pulau Pinang (in progress)

1 Due to the unavailability of data on GDP contribution in the tourism sector at the state level, the number of hotel guests is used to measure the economic performance of the tourism sector in Penang.

2 Due to the lack of data capturing international arrivals via land and sea, a larger pool of international visitors is estimated when visitors travelling through bridges and ferries are taken into consideration.

3 Press statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, September 14, 2015.


5 Penang Paradigm.


Sarah George is currently reading Economics at the University of Bristol.

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