Tourist arrivals on the rise in Penang


ONCE a beacon of nightlife and cultural vibrancy, Chulia Street in the heart of George Town, Penang has seen a dramatic shift in recent years.

Pre-pandemic, this popular street buzzed with energy, drawing locals and tourists alike into its lively embrace every evening.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic turned the thriving hotspot into a shadow of its former self.

Today, business operators are grappling with a reality that is not favourable, but hope flickers on the horizon.

Pub operator Lee Chavin, 31, paints a picture of the current landscape.

Chingay Festival parade in George Town, Penang, is one of several events the state government is banking on to attract more tourists to the city. — FilepicChingay Festival parade in George Town, Penang, is one of several events the state government is banking on to attract more tourists to the city. — Filepic

“It’s not the same, although we are seeing signs of recovery. Sales and the arrival of foreign tourists in the area have dropped by about 30%,” he said.

Lee believes the allure of destinations like Singapore and Thailand, seen as offering more vibrant experiences, might be drawing tourists away.

He suggested that easing some of the strict regulations could breathe new life into the area.

“Maybe they can ‘relax’ a bit on the licensing fees and the rigid regulations, for example, by allowing us to use the five-foot way in front of our premises,” he added.

Similarly, How Ee Tan, a 50-year-old pub owner, noted that while business was improving, it had not reached the pre-pandemic vibrancy.

(From left) Shankar and his wife Ranjani having a good time at a sports bar with friends. Entertaining them is bar owner How (third from left).(From left) Shankar and his wife Ranjani having a good time at a sports bar with friends. Entertaining them is bar owner How (third from left).

He attributed this to the global economic downturn of the past three years that had led to widespread disruptions, severe declines in consumer spending, and significant job losses.

“I think some people are still feeling the pinch, which affects their livelihoods,” he said.

How, who has been in the business for over five years, stressed the importance of proactive promotion for Chulia Street to help bring back the glory of its heyday as a multicultural food paradise and entertainment venue.

Similarly, burger seller Abdul Halim Shahul Hameed, 42, is also feeling the pinch from the subdued atmosphere.

He noted that over the past two years, there had been fewer foreign tourists on the once-famous street.

“I can feel it. My business has dropped by about 30%, and most of my customers are local tourists and regulars,” he said.

Abdul Halim, who has been in the business for the past 24 years, however, dismissed the notion that there were fewer foreign tourists in Penang.

“What I can say is that foreign tourists are now more prudent, and there are more dining options available. They are only paying for value.

“For instance, a group of German tourists wanted to try my burgers, but they only ordered one first. They would only buy more if they liked it,” he said.

Despite the challenges, signs of resilience and adaptation are beginning to emerge. Some businesses have reinvented themselves, offering new attractions and menus to cater to changing consumer habits.

Others have diversified their offerings, transforming into daytime cafes or hybrid spaces that combine dining with retail.

Dutch tourists Slingerland and his girlfriend De Jager enjoying some games at one of the night spots on Chulia Street.Dutch tourists Slingerland and his girlfriend De Jager enjoying some games at one of the night spots on Chulia Street.

Unique appeal

Hungarian Peter Kovac, on his first visit here, felt that Chulia Street was an attractive place with a unique scene and architecture.

“I have been to many Asian countries, but Penang seems more multicultural, and the people here speak good English,” he said.

The 34-year-old data engineer said the atmosphere on Chulia Street was pleasant and he felt safe enjoying his night.

A couple from the Netherlands was also spotted enjoying the night at a pub on Love Lane, off Chulia Street.

Civil servant Eric Slingerland, 40, from Amsterdam, described George Town as a lovely and vibrant town.

Lee wants authorities to ease up on some of the strict regulations to help businesses.Lee wants authorities to ease up on some of the strict regulations to help businesses.

“Chulia Street has its own unique feel and it has a lot of food choices. The people here respect each other, which I love. The multicultural setting in Penang is also interesting and unique to Malaysia,” he said.

His girlfriend Kim De Jager, 35, also from Amsterdam, liked the plentiful street food on Chulia Street.

“It’s a lively city with a lot of food with many different people from various backgrounds,” she said.

Besides foreign tourists, local patrons also have a deep affection for Chulia Street.

Businessman Robby Raj, 38, said Chulia Street brought back sweet memories of his younger years.

“At that time, Chulia Street was vibrant and full of people. But now, it is kind of laid back,” he said, adding that he would come to the street once a week to hang out with his friends.

Restaurant operator Shankar Nair, 42, and his wife Ranjani, 38, from Kepong, said: “Penang is a must-stop destination for us, and Chulia Street will be our main rendezvous to rest and relax.”

He said Kuala Lumpur had become so expensive, and Penang offered them a cheaper alternative for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city.Influx of tourists.

Tourists trying they hand at batik painting during last year’s George Town Heritage celebrations. — FilepicTourists trying they hand at batik painting during last year’s George Town Heritage celebrations. — Filepic

Penang tourism and creative economy committee chairman Wong Hon Wai said foreign tourist arrivals during the first three months of the year had increased compared to the same period last year.

“The numbers, especially those from Indonesia, China, and Australia, have shown a significant increase. For instance, tourists arriving from China recorded a massive 370.22% increase from 4,746 in 2023 to 22,420 this year.

“Arrivals from Indonesia also showed an increase, from 75,141 in 2023 to 98,013 in 2024, or equivalent to a 30.44% hike.

“The number of Japanese tourists has also surged from 2,541 in 2023 to 3,652 in 2024, or a 43.72% rise,” he said.

Wong noted that arrivals from Singapore, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and other Commonwealth countries increased between 30% and 75%.

These figures, he said, indicated a positive outlook for the tourism industry in Penang, with more international direct flights compared to the previous year.

Wong added that Chulia Street and its neighbouring lanes, such as Love Lane, were set to come alive over the next few months, as the state will host a series of festivals and celebrations that will highlight the rich cultural heritage and lively spirit of the city.

He said the George Town Festival (GTF), an annual celebration of arts and culture, would showcase a wide range of performances, exhibitions, and workshops.

The festival, which runs from July 19 to 28, is set to attract artists and audiences from around the world, turning the area into a melting pot of creativity and inspiration.

Its diverse programming ensures there will be something for everyone, from contemporary art installations to traditional music performances.

“In conjunction with Heritage Day on July 7, Chulia Street will transform into a living museum. The event celebrates George Town’s rich history and cultural diversity, with activities ranging from heritage tours and cultural performances to traditional craft demonstrations and food fairs.

“It’s a perfect opportunity for locals and tourists alike to immerse themselves in the historical tapestry of the area,” Wong said.

Wong said another event is the Chingay procession in December, which often sees spectators lining the main route on Chulia Street, standing or sitting on stools to catch a glimpse of the performers.

“This traditional parade, characterised by its elaborate floats, acrobatic stunts and colourful costumes, draws crowds from near and far.

“The procession is not just a visual feast but also a testament to the community’s dedication to preserving its cultural heritage,” he said.

Beyond the Chingay procession, Chulia Street is also the epicentre for several other significant events.

Wong said to enhance the experience for visitors, the local council had also organised street performances, night markets, and pop-up events along Chulia Street and the connecting lanes.

“These activities not only provide entertainment but also support local businesses by drawing more foot traffic to the area.

“All these events will be the highlight of Penang’s tourism industry, which is expected to witness a surge in activity and economic revival.

“The collaborative effort between local authorities, businesses, and cultural organisations aims to showcase the unique charm of George Town, ensuring that it remains a vibrant and attractive destination for both residents and visitors,” he said.

Wong believes these events lined up at Chulia Street will breathe new life into the area, from the spectacular Chingay procession to the GTF, Heritage Day celebrations, and Chinese New Year festivities.

“There is an abundance of activities to look forward to, as these events not only celebrate the rich cultural heritage of George Town but also play a crucial role in revitalising the local economy and fostering a sense of community,” he added.

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