Let the double-deckers run

The Hop-On Hop-Off buses of Penang are almost empty on every route.

The Hop-On Hop-Off buses of Penang are almost empty on every route.

THE Penang Hop-On Hop-Off bus service got off to a rousing start in November last year with hordes of people queuing up early to get on board. During the one week of free rides, many Penangites complained of having to wait long periods for the buses.

There was much excitement because it was the first time double-decker buses were used to promote tourist sites in Penang — similar to the Hop-On Hop-Off services successfully running in Kuala Lumpur, London and other major cities in the world.

Barely three weeks later and after fares were introduced, StarMetro North reported that the 10 buses plying the city and beach routes were nearly empty.

With less than a month to go before the service marks its first year, the buses can’t seem to attract passengers.

Comments posted in www.tripadvisor.com.my include tourists lamenting “the handful of people in the bus” and “no need to worry about pickpockets in the double-deckers because they are not crowded like local buses”.

Now there’s talk of Kuala Lumpur-based bus owner Elang Wah Sdn Bhd stopping the service because it is not profitable.

Corporate director Ekhwan Abdul Rafid said the load was low and the company was “bleeding”.

“But we have no plans to stop the service. We are happy with the authorities for helping to promote the service and providing the infrastructure facilities,” he added.

What’s next for Penang Hop-On Hop-Off and how long will the operator carry on before throwing in the towel?

Will the more-than-10 associations and government bodies representing the tourism industry in Penang get together to keep the service afloat?

Penang Tourist Guides Association president Chin Poh Chin sees the service as a good tourist product.

“Plenty of tourists come to Penang. From Singapore alone, there are more than 100 flights weekly.

“Perhaps the company’s marketing strategy is flawed,” she said.

“The fares are on the high side; people will shy away even if the ticket is valid from 9am till 8pm and you can board the bus as many times as you want.

“It’s best to charge a flat fee per trip,” she said, referring to the current fare of RM19 for adults and RM12 for children who are MyKad holders. Others have to pay RM45 (adult) and RM19 (child above five and below 12).

Chin said the market in Penang was different, citing the example of several new hotels introducing the ‘buy one, free one’ coupon to promote their food business recently. The response was overwhelming.

“But the hotel coffeehouses were deserted once the promotion ended because most Penangites don’t want to fork out RM100 for a meal.”

Chin said she gave some ideas to Ekhwan on how to improve business, such as having trainee tourist guides on the buses and conducting educational trips for students and teachers.

To be fair, the bus company has taken several initiatives including chartered services for weddings and group tours.

According to Ekhwan, the KL Hop-On Hop-Off service is in its ninth year but it took about five years to get a firm footing. It has a passenger load of between 60% and 70%.

It will be bad news for the tourism industry in Penang if the company decides to put the brakes on the double-deckers at this early stage.