‘Disneyfication’ no good for Penang’s tourism future, NGOs tell govt

Participants asking questions at the Penang Tourism Master Plan public town hall meeting at the Setia Spice Convention Centre in Penang today.

GEORGE TOWN: Several groups today urged the Penang government to stop pushing for “Disneyfication” of attractions and to promote experience-based tourism with a focus on promoting culture and nature.

“Disneyfication” is a term used to describe the transformation of historical places and local customs into trivial entertainment.

Penang Heritage Trust council member Jack Ong said the “Disneyfication” problem was real as many famous traditional trades and cultural shows appeared to have changed to please tourists.

He said this will be a turn-off for tourists eventually. He said traditional trades are now moving to sell trinkets and other tourist merchandise, mostly mass-produced in China.

“By right, we should be focusing on our local artisans to showcase the best in our state.

“The government should be pushing the locals to come up with their own products, ranging from cheap to expensive ones, just like how the Thais are doing.

“But, sadly, the local communities think that by making things flashier and selling trinkets, tourists will come flocking. But this will only discourage them as it is not authentic.”

He said it was therefore incumbent on the tourism and heritage authorities to ensure authentic tourism products are delivered by the key tourism players in the state.

Ong was speaking during a question-and-answer session at the Penang Tourism Master Plan public town hall, held at the Setia Spice Convention Centre in Relau today.

‘Where are we heading to?’

The harshest criticism of the proposed master plan came from tourism industry consultant Ooi Geok Ling.

She said the essence of the blueprint, which was supposed to have strategies and the “big idea” of where Penang’s tourism should head to, was missing.

She said the master plan laid out today was merely a list of projects. This defeated the purpose of having a blueprint of a master plan in the first place.

Penang executive councillor Yeoh Soon Hin (holding mic) at the Penang Tourism Master Plan public town hall meeting.

“So many questions are unanswered. There are many micro-projects, but there is no macro-direction or a strategy of where our tourism should head to.

“There is a call to ‘diversify’ tourism products but, at the same time, there is a call to ‘focus’ on certain areas.

“Can someone tell me what is being done with the hotel tax collected from visitors? How are we going to spend it?”

Ooi, who once headed the Penang government’s international tourism bureau, also asked what was being done to stem the drop in the number of tourists to the state and the alarming low occupancy rates of hotels in the state.

She said despite having so many interesting theme parks, the tourism numbers have dropped.

“Ultimately, we should be pushing experiences, not attractions,” she said.

Ooi said an in-depth study is needed to see why people are shunning Penang, not to build more tourist spots, as espoused in the new master plan.

“We have plenty of direct flights to Penang, especially from Singapore, but even the number of tourists from the republic has dropped in the past three years.

“Our mainstay used to be tourists from the UK and Australia. Their number, too, has dropped.”

Earlier, consultant Badaruddin Mohamed gave an explanation on the state’s tourism blueprint. Under the master plan, with the acronym PGTMP, 104 initiatives will be carried out to improve Penang’s tourism.

This includes a grand bazaar, arts and culture enclaves, theme parks, tourist night markets and an “entertainment city”, among others, to be carried out on the island and in Seberang Perai.

Badaruddin, who has been contracted by the Penang government to come out with the master plan, told the audience that the feedback received today would be taken into account before the plan is finalised.

He said the master plan was devised from many focus group discussions held before this.