Can Penang Lead the Way in Sustainable Tourism?

It has been 11 years since George Town was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, and its tourism industry has since then flourished beyond imagination. No longer is the inner city a ghost town come sundown – the streets are alive with activities; shophouses are shiny and business is brisk.

Yet, some are questioning: how can we ensure tourism continues to grow, but at the same time not go the way of, say, Venice, where tourists outnumber locals?

(Then again, Venice’s population stands at 50,000. The tourists? A whopping 30 million a year – almost as high as Malaysia’s entire population.1)

Even so, steps should be taken to prevent this, and various parties are cracking their heads to strike a balance.

“We want to ensure that tourism is sustainable for years to come,” says Yeoh Soon Hin, State Tourism Development, Arts, Culture and Heritage committee chairman.

“One of the aspects of the Penang Tourism Master Plan is framing a balanced development for both the mainland and the island so that the former can also economically benefit from the tourism sector. We are trying to drive tourism traffic to the mainland as well through events in our ‘Penang Celebrates’ series. Homestays are also a component in our tourism master plan as the economic benefits go directly to the locals, and at the same time, local culture is promoted.”

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) particularly come in handy in providing guidelines for Yeoh’s office when it comes to tourism planning. “Primarily, we are looking at Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth. The rise in tourism has great economic impact on local communities, and the state government aims to enhance our travel and tourism industry to bring better livelihood and create more job opportunities for the people.”

A Sustainable Tourism Strategy Document was produced by George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) – the state’s heritage agency – and was supported by the Malaysia Funds-in-Trust, under the Malaysia-Unesco Cooperation Programme. In it, it outlines a draft smart action plan for George Town, listing targeted areas for improvement.

Critical issues that underlie George Town identified in the document include gentrification; lack of a systematic, comprehensive and correct interpretation of local cultural heritage; endangerment and loss of traditional trades with increase of new products not related to the heritage values; congestion, limited accessibility and insufficient signage; and lack of disaster risk management and road safety for tourists.

“GTWHI’s core business is to manage, monitor and educate – one of the projects that we are working on is committee-based inventorying – but sustainable tourism is a fact that I have to face; it comes together with the World Heritage Site,” says Dr Ang Ming Chee, general manager of GTWHI.

I ask Ang which of the SDGs is most relevant to the agency, and she identifies it as Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities.

“When you talk about a World Heritage Site, you talk about the Outstanding Universal Values (OUVs). For George Town, we have three: multicultural trading town, multicultural living heritage, and the townscape – the buildings, basically, of which we have about 5,300. How can we continue having these elements?

“Currently, GTWHI is carrying out holistic management – we provide complimentary consultation services to building owners, users and tenants, and people who come to George Town – people who don’t live here but who are still part of the city. George Town is all about the people. How can we ensure that local folks continue wanting to come back here, are proud of this place and can relate it to their identities?

“Part of it comes from supporting our local craftsmen – depending on external factors, i.e. tourists, is not healthy,” says Ang.

“GTWHI can always carry out the education, promotion and awareness, but if the craftsmen don’t want to produce and the locals do not take these products as a part of their identity, then you’re stuck as well. For it to be sustainable you have to look at it in the long term. There’s supply and demand; and there’s the availability and cost of the raw materials.

“Take rattan weaving for example – it might be harder or costlier to obtain raw materials due to factors such as urbanisation and deforestation. Rattan weaving is a skill, but most of the weavers we interviewed who decided not to continue their craft said it was because weaving is too painful – if you look at their hands, you can feel the pain. They work hard to send their children for higher education so that they don’t have to do physical work; it’s an achievement for them, whereas we want continuity – we are selfish.”

I think of the ama divers in Japan – women who risk life and limb to earn a living free-diving for seafood. Romantic, yes, and traditional to the T, but certainly not a job I’d like to do – nor do most Japanese, seeing that the numbers of ama divers have dwindled to less than 2,000.2

“Then, you have cases such as the joss stick maker on Lebuh Muda – his son, seeing how lucrative business was, came back to help and to learn the ropes. He saw the opportunity in it, and to me, that works.”

The Tangible and Intangible Stuff

One of the action plans listed in the Sustainable Tourism Strategy Document is developing and implementing proper guidelines in heritage building application for accommodation. “We launched the George Town Heritage Habitat Seed Fund last year; the state government has allocated RM3mil. We are now working with house owners who have rented out their premises to long-term tenants at very low rent. A lot of them are trustees, kongsi, wakaf – we want to acknowledge the contributions of these owners and preserve the second OUV: living heritage.

“We are using the money to help these owners restore part of the building structures to make them safe in exchange for six to 10 years of agreement of subsidised rent. It’s related to affordable living, safety of the house structure and providing equal opportunities for everyone.

“We are also working on disaster management – assessing risks, reducing vulnerability and increasing preparedness for fires and floods. We are going to give out 50 pairs of fire extinguishers and smoke detectors to be installed in participating premises, on top of educational posters, and are working with a few committees to develop a plan to identify the risks in their neighbourhoods, and what can be done if disaster strikes.”

On the topic of gentrification caused by tourism, Ang puts it simply: “Prices for goods and services have generally increased; this phenomenon is not exclusive to the World Heritage Site. Gentrification is a general problem, as are traffic jams and climate change. In the past, it was very easy to get a place to park within the World Heritage Site because nobody wanted to come here – it was dirty, unsafe. People didn’t know what to do here; cultural heritage at that time was not the trend.

“These days, however, people want to see cultural heritage. The local authorities – the state government – invested a lot in cleaning up the place, upgrading the back lanes. The owners of the buildings were willing to invest in the restoration of the buildings to make them safer. And people became willing to do business here again. People say gentrification; I just say the economy is coming back here.”

But tourism in Penang is more than just George Town and the northern part of the island – there’s a world to explore farther south and over at Seberang Perai. Yeoh’s office is working on diversifying the state’s tourism products to channel out the concentration of tourists.

“There are lovely places all over Penang to visit – farm stays in Balik Pulau; homestays on the mainland; firefly watching in Nibong Tebal; seafood at Pulau Aman; bird-watching at Sungai Perai; and many others. We could reduce the crowding and congestion in one place as well as the stress on our people, resources and environment on which tourism depends,” says Yeoh.

With the services industry overtaking manufacturing as the top contributor to the state’s GDP, many have set a keen eye on the stewardship of tourism in Penang as a whole – as it should be. And while we most certainly do not want to lose our charm for the benefit of tourism, neither should we want to stay static – a mere exhibit behind a glass window. After all, aren’t we all tourists at some point or another, even within our own cities?

Julia “Bubba” Tan is editor of Penang Monthly and head of the Publication and Publicity Department at Penang Institute.


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