George Town’s charm lies in its people and its air of old world decadence. However, it is at risk of losing its appeal unless better ways of promoting tourism are implemented.
One Wednesday evening, I walked down Lebuh Armenian to Little India to hunt for spices. I was inspired by a story over a hearty dinner at Jawi House in George Town by Dr Wazir Jahan Karim, an anthropologist turned restaurateur, who told such spicy stories about spices that it whetted our appetite to hunt for some.
Lebuh Armenian was heaving with people, and I wondered why. It turned out to be... nothing. There was nothing special going on there, just hundreds of people straggling along the picturesque street, clustering around the abundant wall murals to take photographs.
This being my first visit in months, I was surprised I could barely find a wall left untouched. Even shop doors are now painted with cute images. As we strolled towards Lebuh Victoria, makeshift stalls selling T-shirts and souvenirs of George Town called for our attention.
It left me with mixed feelings, especially as this scene has been replicated in many other places.
On one hand, it is good that Penang's tourism boom is putting money into the pockets of the local people. First off the starting block were well-heeled Malaysians and expats who opened swish hotels and restaurants. They were soon followed by young locals who opened cafes that were more sweet than sleek, as they spied the opportunity to offer coffee to people prowling for street art.
All this quickly reinvigorated George Town's streets, rested no doubt on a foundation of a genuine interest in Penang's heritage. Some, like the couple who runs the Tofu Cafe hostel, even attended talks by the Penang Heritage Trust to learn how to run a business in a heritage building. There was a real sense of ownership of Penang in these ventures that ranged from cafes to hostels to tours. People took pride in their homes and tried to fit into the ethos of a “living museum”.
But George Town is beginning to face problems wrought by its runaway success. Commercialism is becoming too obvious. The craze for street art has become a tad crazy, with some aimed at drawing in the crowds who might then spend a ringgit or two on souvenirs and a drink.
This iconic wall mural by Ernest Zacharevic is a great photo op for locals and tourists alike.
It would be a pity if George Town crossed that fine line between charm and crassness. George Town's beauty lies in its very nature of being understated and authentic. It's about the people doing the things that they do, the sense of linkages that stretch far into the past, and the messy mishmash of cultures. Here, you can look back in time as well as forward.
"George Town is special for this," says George Town Festival director Joe Sidek, who has a hugely infectious enthusiasm for all things George Town. He is convinced that the best way to bring out its beauty is to focus on the community and the real life in the old quarter. This includes telling the stories of the people through simple ways such as house tours and shared meals.
It includes getting pedestrians and cyclists back onto the streets. It's not about building set pieces to attract tourists – sustainable and beautiful tourism is one that respects the environment and gives back to the community. “We have to start thinking and really understand what we want for tourism here,” says Sidek. “Penang is very small, and the environment is very sensitive."
He believes that the people here genuinely want to make it work, but it is tough finding a happy medium between doing something right and doing it commercially. To Sidek, the first issues that need to be addressed are eyesores such as tour buses clogging inner city streets and cheap souvenir stalls selling foreign products that have nothing to do with George Town.
He says there are better ways to promote tourism, like a meaningful celebration of George Town's festivals. By this, he doesn't mean art, literary or music festivals, but religious and cultural ones that the people celebrate. We already have a few, including Thaipusam, the Hungry Ghost Festival and Bon Odori. "But how many people know the stories of Bon Odori?" Sidek asks.
Many wouldn't, which is why Sidek sees the need to layer these festivals with stories to express their meaning and highlight them as a real part of people’s lives, not just as tourist attractions. The Penang state government has envisioned something along those lines. In the Penang Paradigm, a blueprint for the state's future direction, it states that its tourism aims are to focus on Penang's rich religious, cultural and culinary heritage as attractions and to target high end and middle-class tourists.
George Town has, no doubt, been a runaway success story in the revival of its old city, tourism and investments, and it is a clear winner in the chic stakes. But success can be hard to manage – it is not all about getting more tourists, more investments and more money. It is also about the people and their lives. "There is a need to revisit the idea of success," Sidek concludes.