Heritage tourism in Malaysia is a delicate balancing act

The Seh Tek Tong Cheah Kongsi in Armenian Street, Penang, is one of Penang’s oldest clan houses tucked within the George Town Unesco World Heritage site. — Filepic by ZHAFARAN NASIB/The Star

Jalan Tengkera in Melaka has all the markings of a great heritage tourism product – a war-torn past, centuries-old Dutch buildings, mystical tombs and households with heirloom artefacts. A team of researchers from Melaka In Fact recently did a cultural mapping of the area.

When asked if the point of the exercise is to unlock tourism potential, the members – comprising Razak Bahrom, Bert Tan, Hamid Hasan and Wenila Nadarajan – immediately shut down the idea.

“Our main aim is to give back to the community by collecting their stories and preserving the past,” Razak explains, adding that apart from staging exhibitions, the findings were shared with the Melaka Historic City Council and Museums Department.

The dream, according to Tan, is to prevent Jalan Tengkera from succumbing to the detrimental effects of tourism that have plagued many heritage sites in Melaka.

“Just look at Jonker Street ... the soul of the place is gone. It’s too late to do cultural mapping over there now,” he says, alluding to the traditional trades that have been driven out from the tourist-packed location.

A typical scene around Melaka’s high-density tourist area (namely, Jonker Street). Melaka In Fact, a community group that works to preserve Melaka’s historical identity, aims to stop other areas in the state from becoming too commercialised. — Bernama

But Tan says it’s only a matter of time before the heritage-rich Jalan Tengkera lands on tourism maps, as travellers continue to hunt down novel experiences.

All over the world, heritage tourism – the practice of travelling to places of historical and cultural significance – remains an enduring form of travel.

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), heritage tourism generates about US$327bil (RM1.367tril) yearly in the Asia Pacific region.

In Malaysia, cities like Melaka, George Town, Ipoh, Kuching, Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur – with their illustrious past and rich multicultural makeup – are primed to tap into this evergreen market.

The right planning

As part of Visit Malaysia 2020, the focus will be on promoting the sustainability of tourism, arts and culture. However, sustainability in heritage tourism is a somewhat delicate matter.

Even the UNWTO concedes heritage tourism is complex as cultural heritage attractions tend to be “fragile by nature”.

How then do cities preserve its heritage while providing quality experiences to tourists?

Think City programme director Murali Ram says the tourists’ experience should come in the form of immersing oneself in a culture and place.

The Sultan Abdul Samad Building in Kuala Lumpur is a heritage site that is popular with locals and tourists alike.

“For this to be authentic, elements of intangible heritage needs to be protected and strengthened. A holistic tourism management plan is needed; taking into account a city’s core assets, traffic management, pedestrian circulation, cultural contents and effective wayfinding, among other things,” he says.

Think City is a subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional, the government’s investment arm, which spearheads urban regeneration in Penang and other urban areas in Malaysia.

Heritage tourism, according to Murali, goes beyond monuments and structures.

“It includes curation of cultural content and mitigation measures to prevent displacement of intangible heritage such as traditional ways, rituals and trades as well as local residents.

“We need to ensure that the tourism activities do not irrevocably change the face of the city,” he says.

In growing heritage tourism, it is also important to protect traditional trades such as the craft of beaded shoes from being displaced from the city.

At the same time, Murali says considerations should be made first and foremost for the local community.

“While understandably the city managers are excited about improvements to city economics, the overarching rule should be that tourism should not be at the expense of local communities and displacement of intangible heritage.

“After all, what good is a heritage city without its soul?” Murali adds.

Tale of two cities: George Town and KL

In the case of George Town, heritage tourism skyrocketed after the island city and Melaka were jointly listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites in 2008.

Penang Tourism Development, Heritage, Culture and Arts committee chairman Yeoh Soon Hin admits that the challenge for the state government now is to ensure locals thrive together with the city.

Yeoh says that one of the challenges the Penang government faces is gentrification.

“Some of the challenges we face include gentrification, due to changing lifestyles and increased cost of living. This may result in the loss of traditional community residents and traders, thus changing the site’s demographics.

“The changing times means that there is an increase in new products that are not related to heritage values. Efforts and awareness are paramount in ensuring the continuity of these traditional trades,” he says.

Figures from the Penang Tourist Survey 2018 by Universiti Sains Malaysia revealed that visiting historical sites (24.2%) ranks in the top five must-do activities in the city. This has resulted in a mushrooming of tourist facilities in tandem with the increase in demand.

Noting this phenomenon, Yeoh says his office’s main agenda is to maintain the balance between heritage preservation and tourism growth.

“Tourism can be a platform to enhance Outstanding Universal Values (OUV) by organising more cultural and arts activities. We are looking into potential investments to create job opportunities in the relevant areas,” he says.

Yeoh explains this can ensure tourism’s spillover economic benefits go towards enhancing the OUV for years to come.

OUV, according to Unesco, means a cultural significance that is so exceptional it transcends national boundaries. OUV must also be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.

The Seh Tek Tong Cheah Kongsi in Armenian Street, Penang, is one of Penang’s oldest clan houses tucked within the George Town Unesco World Heritage site.

“The primary consideration is for the benefit of the people which in this context, refers to those who are staying in the heritage enclaves. When the revenue is channelled back to the communities, it would promote capacity building and heighten the awareness of the people,” he explains.

If anything, Yeoh is seeing a positive impact in George Town’s heritage tourism growth.

“The Unesco inscription has spurred tourism development, and generated interest among tourists to visit the city. The interest has also breathed a second lease of life to some buildings and areas which, just a decade earlier, may have been abandoned or unvalued,” he says.

Armenian Street in George Town attracts many tourists that are keen to check out its famous murals as well as heritage buildings.

With the city of KL, though, it is a lack of civic mindedness that seems to plague the development of heritage tourism.

Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) senior deputy director (city planning) Nik Mastura Diyana Nik Mohamad says rampant vandalism and overtourism are causes for concern.

She highlights instances where the historic Dataran Merdeka’s grass lawns were heavily trampled and destroyed, as well as inconsiderate littering, every time a major event is held.

Nik Mastura believes heritage buildings should keep up with the times to attract visitors.

Although she admits enforcement is something that needs to be worked on, tourists need to respect the places they visit too.

“Visitors need to have a sense of belonging and care. The people should educate themselves about a place and why it’s important to maintain it well. That responsibility should not lie with the authorities alone. We cannot afford to put 24-hour enforcement,” she says.

While heritage tourism in KL is not as big as George Town and Melaka, DBKL has been taking huge strides in showcasing the city’s culture and heritage to the world.

Nik Mastura believes that heritage buildings should keep up with the times to attract tourists.

“One of the initiatives that we look into is encouraging improvements and adaptive reuse of heritage or cultural buildings to enhance their tourism appeal,” she says, citing examples such as converting past structures into libraries, cafes and restaurants.

“Adaptive reuse of such buildings breathe new life into them, allowing them to showcase their aesthetic features while continuing to serve their functional roles,” Nik Mastura says.

Communal associations

In Malaysia, the National Heritage Department (JWN) and the National Heritage Act 2005 are in place to guard both tangible and intangible national heritage.

A good management plan of heritage sites, according to JWN deputy director general Mohamad Muda Bahadin, is vital for tourism growth.

“Heritage sites that are maintained well will ensure the safety of travellers. This will inadvertently encourage more visitors to the country.

“Besides, a well-maintained heritage site is usually more interesting and is better able to showcase the refinement work that has been done to the place,” he says.

The Portuguese-built fort of Porta De Santiago (A Famosa) is one of the oldest surviving European architectural remains in the whole of Asia.

Stressing that the heritage sector is an important economic contributor, Mohamad Muda adds that government agencies, the private sector and general public need to work together to ensure the sustainability of heritage tourism.

Cardosa says communities in Malaysia should be empowered to share their culture and heritage.

However, Badan Warisan Malaysia president Elizabeth Cardosa says the development of heritage tourism should be tread carefully.

“Heritage tourism is not a bad thing, but it’s not something to be exploited unless it belongs to you,” she says, adding that respective communities should be empowered to share their culture and heritage.

Cardosa also takes offence at the way some aspects of culture and heritage are promoted by tourism bodies, calling the materials “old fashioned”.

“How much of what you see in tourism brochures are actually true? The way it is promoted and the community’s expectation of how it should be promoted is totally different,” she says, highlighting examples such as inauthentic cultural dances and traditional costumes.

To grow heritage tourism, Cardosa says it is imperative to disassociate it from commercial sensibilities at times. “We are concerned about how much of culture is being seen as a commodity. Not everything should be turned into a tourism asset, you see,” she says.

But when it does get turned into a tourism product, the responsibility then falls on the visitor to be a more mindful traveller.

“You have to enjoy it with a sense of respect, appreciation and basic integrity. Otherwise you would just end up with a superficial experience,” Cardosa notes.

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