Keeping George Town’s golden goose strong and fat

George Town has gained much from its Unesco listing. The inner city has been greatly revived – just go down Lebuh Armenian on weekends and see for yourself the multitudes that throng the area for food and drinks and for selfies. However, as with any other popular tourist spot, the risk of becoming overcommercialised is high, and George Town may suffer from the slow corrosion of its charm.

This is where USM’s Sustainable Tourism Research Cluster (STRC) can provide some useful pointers. We contact Prof Badaruddin Mohamed, head of STRC as well as the Local Research Group of the university, to chat about what can be done. The answer lies, unsurprisingly, in its people.

Tell us a bit about yourself. We know that you obtained your bachelor degree from the University of Northern Iowa, majoring in Environmental Planning, and you completed your Masters and PhD at Rikkyo University, Tokyo in Tourism Planning and Development.

Prof Badar with a Penan of Long Lamai.

As such, you spent quite a bit of time living and working in Japan. How would you say this has influenced you, and how can Malaysians learn from Japan in terms of balancing development and culture?

Living and working in Japan has taught me self discipline, time management and hard work.

As our development pace is not the same as Japan’s, we have a better chance at conservation. We need strong governance, such as laws and regulations to protect our culture and heritage, as well as good incentives to entice people to conserve their heritage buildings.

For living culture, an integrated approach is needed. Career paths for artisans involved in arts and culture must be encouraged. At the same time, Malaysian culture must evolve to keep up with development.

At the clan jetties, a family takes a breather. More opportunities should be made available for tourists to mingle with the local populace.

Penang’s tourism has seen a significant boom of late, but concerns are being voiced over its sustainability – something we spoke about previously1. You mentioned at length the importance of local participation when it comes to tourism planning. Does STRC have any plans in mind to expand this?

Another facet of sustainability is economic sustainability. I believe that Penang needs to be strong domestically and regionally to remain competitive and for the sector to be sustainable. Penang is well-known as a food haven, and its world heritage status is a brand. However, most locals love Penang for its food rather than for its heritage. Therefore, in order to make heritage sustainable, Penang needs to enhance its value, create more side products as well as create more opportunities for spending. This is how many destinations survive: sheer innovation to generate spending.

There's a positive feeling among Penangites, who are generally enthusiastic to participate in promoting and managing Penang. In other words, there's a strong sense of ownership.

Yes, I totally agree that there is a sense of enthusiasm among Penangites towards heritage tourism. As such, small enclaves within the inner city are in need of associations where the population can sit down and discuss issues such as the sense of a place or the area they want to protect. In Japan, there is a concept called machizukuri, which literally means “city making”. It is an approach where design and land-use plans come from the local people. With guidance from the local council, this can be encouraged.

Nobody wants Penang to lose its charm, and one of the things – arguably the main thing – that makes Penang special is its people. How can one preserve that, given today's economic situation?

One of the criteria of George Town’s heritage listing is its culture, which is more difficult to conserve. I am afraid that we are killing the goose that lays the golden egg – people tend to oversell heritage like a commodity. Instead, more opportunities should be made available for tourists to mingle with the local populace.

Researching the carrying capacity of Sipadan Island.

Places such as Bhutan have restricted tourists for higher quality tourism. Might this be something that STRC's Tourism Capacity and Impact Studies is looking at?

Yes, STRC is looking at carrying capacity aspects. They are more applicable on environmentally-sensitive areas such as Mabul and Sipadan islands in Borneo or Perhentian Island in Terengganu, or at eco reserves such as Upper Kinabatangan in Sabah. George Town as an urban tourism site is more durable – it has more elastic capacity. I think Penang in general is under capacity at the moment, thus the focus must be on how to increase capacity to absorb more tourists. We have not yet reached the level of Venice, where the number of tourists is five times the number of the local population. The issue is not the numbers, but rather management. The interlocking of incompatible activities along the beaches of Batu Ferringhi, for example, creates the sense that we have reached the capacity, but the activities can actually be segregated.

Certain areas in Penang already have built-in capacity measures in mind. Penang Hill can be controlled by merely limiting the number of trains running up the hill, especially during high season, so, it’s about managing growth rather than increasing capacity.

Not as popular as the other jetties, perhaps due to its rickety platform, Tan Jetty begs the question, “To conserve or to commercialise?”

Chinese New Year celebrations on Lebuh Bishop. Penang’s high season is around Christmas, New Year’s day and Chinese New Year.

What are some of STRC’s current projects?

STRC is currently working on a few major projects: we have two long-term research projects on carrying capacity and sustainable tourism, and our team is working closely with the local population of Lenggong to develop tourist trails and products in order to improve the heritage tourism experience in the valley as well as to increase the local capacity. Across the country, STRC is engaging with the Langkawi Development Authority to help Langkawi have higher yield tourism. We are also working with the Penans of Long Lamai in Sarawak to build their capacity through tourism and studying the interaction between locals and resorts on the tiny coral island of Mabul.

STRC is also active in consultancy works. We are currently conducting a study on the perception of KL dwellers on services rendered by Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL). Locally, STRC is working closely with Penang Global Tourism (PGT) to analyse the demographics of tourists visiting Penang.

What are some of the challenges STRC faces?

As an independent group within USM, STRC survives on continuous grants and projects procured from various sources. Thus, STRC must continue obtaining grants and projects for its survival. Integrating some 30-strong academic members from various backgrounds can also be challenging.

Finally, with regards to sustainable tourism, what would be your advice to the people of Penang?

Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg.



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