Counting on cruises to come a-calling

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  • Tuesday, 04 Dec 2018

A filepix showing about 4,500 cruise passengers pouring out of Swettenham Pier from the 15-deck Voyager of the Seas towering in the background.

BEING on a cruise ship is like entering a dream.

The sheer opulence of these fantastic ocean liners will sweep you into a different realm, where you say goodbye to your familiar world.

My favourite part is to be on the upper decks right after boarding and wait for the ship to blow her horn and, with a slowness that emphasises her massive bulk, leave the docks.

Take off your wrist watch when you are on a cruise and at some point, lose all sense of time and realise that it does not matter.

Then there are the ports of call for you to explore and this is where Penang comes in. Or Swettenham Pier, to be precise.

After cruise passengers come ashore and walk 265m straight down Beach Street, they will find Sri Weld Food Court.

On a week day afternoon, they will mingle with busy office folk.

Take a moment to absorb this. You stroll sedately down Beach Street from your dream world, just starting to regain your sense of time, and you see all these busy office workers.

Your perceptions — altered from being on a cruise — will show you the world in a new light.

But let’s not forget the food court, which has a few notable favourites.

There is Ali Nasi Lemak Daun Pisang (be careful, the chilli packs a wallop), the Kuantan Road Curry Mee stall and Beef Noodles. These three hawkers, among tens there, are local favourites.

If Melaka has Jonker Walk, then Beach Street is very much a “cruiser’s walk”, because this 1km-stretch, from the tip near the pier until Acheen Street (Lebuh Acheh) junction is where cruise passengers can experience George Town Unesco World Heritage Site.

There is the fire station housed in a colonial building at the junction of Chulia Street, and the Ghee Hiang outlet of Penang’s centuries-old pastry.

There are multitudes of chic or retro cafes, the beloved Children on Bicycle mural at the corner of Armenian Street and the Boy on a Bike mural at the corner of Ah Quee Street.

There is the resplendent Cheah Kongsi.

Other Penang attractions aside, just this 1km-walk from their ships shows them the classic side of George Town. Very few cruise terminals in the world offers walking distance to heritage and culture like this.

Someone asked me why I got worried when I found out we are getting fewer cruise ship calls this year.

Journalists have many sources: people who share info with us when they are worried about something and hope we can highlight it.

It turns out that all this while, the public has been shown numbers on ship passenger arrivals that include the Langkawi-Penang ferries.

But stakeholders are only concerned with cruise ship arrivals.

The Langkawi ferries carry about 200,000 passengers a year over between 700 to 800 trips. To add these figures into cruise tourism data is like counting in express buses when we want to know how many tour buses come.

When my source showed me the cruise ship arrival data, we were not interested in the ferry trips, nor even the cruises to nowhere from Penang.

Last weekend, another source from the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture provided me distilled statistics on cruise ship passenger arrivals to Penang, not counting ferries and cruises to nowhere.

According to my ministry source, last year was the golden year of cruise tourism, with 267 ship calls bringing 426,140 passengers, compared with 2016 that saw 136 ships with 213,566 passengers.

I am still delving for distilled data because I am not satisfied with the available info.

But I will, from now on, take the 1.2 million passenger arrivals of last year as only a ballpark figure; not as an actual barometer for Penang cruise tourism.

Officially, the estimate for this year is 1.07 million passengers, a drop of between 9% and 12% from said ballpark figure.

What happened? How much of that drop comes from cruise tourism? Did cruise passengers dislike our George Town? Have we not been promoting enough? Were there too many traffic jams when they came?

Our pier’s berthing fees are among the lowest in the world and I have experienced many times how efficient the cruise terminal is. I see no problems there.

But for the sake of our tourism industry, we need to find out why cruise ships are less interested in Penang compared with last year and to what degree.

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