BY NG SU-ANN
PENANG: The island is losing its shine as the “Pearl of the Orient.”
Tourists are bypassing it for more attractive destinations in the country and overseas.
Tour guides here are also leaving for greener pastures in more vibrant markets, such as Kuala Lumpur and Malacca.
Freelance tour guide Lim Tek Choon said many of his peers had left for Kuala Lumpur where they could get more assignments.
“Most tourists are now bypassing Penang and flying to China, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bali.
“We are seriously lacking in new tourism products while the existing ones such as Penang Hill and the Botanic Gardens have remained unchanged over the years,” he said.
Another tour guide, Irard Razali, also complained about the lack of new tourism products, adding that tourists who had visited the island would not want to return here as they had “been there and done that.”
“Why should they spend their money to return to the same place when they could travel to new destinations?” he asked.
Shangri-La’s director of communications Suleiman Tunku Abdul Rahman said other factors causing a decline in tourist arrivals included the bird flu outbreak and the recent unrest in southern Thailand.
“We have received emails from our foreign business partners who voiced their concern over these issues.
“However, we assured them that Penang is not affected by the outbreak or the unrest,” he added.
A spokesman of the Mutiara Beach Resort said Bali and Thailand were strong contenders in the region’s tourism industry as they were now promoting cheaper flights.
According to the island's Tourism Action Council statistics, tourist arrivals, both domestic and foreign, had been on the decline in recent years.
There were 3.78mil arrivals in 2000, compared to 3.03mil last year.
In contrast, tourist arrivals in the country – except last year – had been increasing, with 13.8mil tourists projected to visit Malaysia this year.
State Tourism Development and Environment committee chairman Teng Chang Yeow said tourist arrivals to the island last month were less than the corresponding month last year, when the region was adversely affected by the SARS scare and the Iraq war.
Teng added, however, that the overall number of tourist arrivals has increased so far this year, compared with last year.
On the tour operators’ call for new tourism products in the state, Teng said the latest ones were the Islamic Museum, Peranakan Museum, Penang War Museum and the Tropical Spice Garden.
“Instead of blaming the government for the drop in tourist arrivals, the tourism industry should cooperate with us to face this challenge together,” he said.