GEORGE TOWN: A heritage-interest group told tourism authorities today that souvenir shops in the heritage district of George Town should be done away with.
It said the trinket shops may drive away quality tourists in the long run.
George Town Heritage Action Co-Founder Joann Khaw said the current “honeymoon period” experienced by Penang’s tourism industry may be short-lived as many world travellers were becoming more culturally savvy.
She said travellers did not want to encounter other tourists while on vacation but wanted to experience the authentic way of life, just like the locals did.
The flourishing souvenir and trinket shops, Khaw said, were driving out Penang’s intangible living heritage that outsiders wanted to see.
The shops were also affecting the living standards of locals in the inner city, that was packed with illegal guest houses, and suffered from traffic and pollution.
Khaw said the authorities must first plan and develop George Town for its people, not for tourists.
She reminded tourism authorities that if the locals liked what they saw, the tourists would too, and not the other way around.
“When they start to see Disneyland, tourists will go away. Turning George Town or the rest of Penang into a theme park will kill tourism.
“Hotels, souvenir shops and gourmet coffee shops in excess will not bring back repeat tourists.
“Simply put, why would you go to a place where you would only see tourists?” she queried at a press conference here today.
Khaw also described the free tours offered by the state tourism authorities as wasteful as it hurt the local tour guide community besides diluting the authenticity of the real George Town.
She said the money poured into the free tours could be used to train local tour guides. Indonesia was already practising this and it had proven beneficial in the long run.
Khaw said many tour guides shared this same sentiment, but were afraid to voice their opinions for fear of the repercussion from tourism authorities.
She also warned that George Town may suffer the same as Vietnam’s Hoi An if authorities did not stop their tourist-centric policies.
She noted that Hoi An, whose inhabitants like Penang’s were predominantly Chinese, was also a heritage site and shared a colonial past. It had pre-war buildings similar to those found in George Town but had become a destination tourists no longer wanted to visit.
“Today, tourists steer clear of Hoi An. This is because everything is very touristy. Things have become so touristy one would have to purchase a ticket to walk on cordoned-off roads.
“And the street furniture and composition of shops are also eerily similar to George Town’s.
“Gourmet coffee outlets, souvenir shops and many other outlets have driven out the traditional trading community from the harbour town.
“I am of the opinion that it is not too late to save George Town from this same predicament,” Khaw said, presenting her suggestions:
1. No more free tours—channel money for free tours to train local tour guides. Free tours mean tourists will only demand for free tours in the future and this is not sustainable in the long run.
2. Limit the number of souvenir shops, cafes and hotels within the cultural and historic enclave.
3. Chinese clan houses should rent out their vacant shophouses for locals to stay, not businesses. The city council can designate clan houses as residential and preferably low-cost housing to benefit the needy. This will result in a win-win situation, as most vacant units will be snapped up.
4. Shops renting out bicycles and quadracycles must set strict ground rules— no more riding against traffic. The city council must come up with a safe route after discussions with locals. Trishawmen should be given priority.
5. Tax exemption must be given to those who retain traditional traders and grants should be given to repair their buildings.
6. There must be efficient pick-up of passenger traffic from the cruise terminal at the Swettenham Pier. A proper taxi and trishaw queuing system ought to be in place.
7. Tourist buses must shut off engines while waiting for tourists. Enforcement officers from the Environment Department should be on standby at tourist spots to ensure compliance.