Saving George Town’s charm






Unique sights: A trishaw driver ferrying tourists in Armenian Street.

Unique sights: A trishaw driver ferrying tourists in Armenian Street.

GEORGE TOWN: It has been 11 years since George Town was recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site. However, the city is now paying the price for its unique status.

The numerous transformations to make it appealing to the middle class have made its original residents leave the old city for the suburbs, and this is threatening to derail its universal values.

Besides the everyday traffic, tourists arriving by the busload, especially during the holiday seasons, are making the narrow roads congested.

The designer cafes, hotels, stalls and souvenir shops that have sprouted up in recent times are not helping the situation either.

Scores of residents have moved out, selling their heritage properties to foreign investors.

Statistics by Think City, a community-focused urban regeneration organisation here, showed that traditional communities in the heritage area are fast disappearing.

The number of Chinese households in both the core and buffer zones decreased to 1,505 in 2013 compared to 1,701 in 2009, while Indian families nosedived from 304 to 252.

Think City programme director Murali Ram said holistic tourism management could protect the heritage site’s charm.

“Millennial travellers want to experience the living culture of the cities they visit. Old trades and other heritage components make up a city’s character.

“They want to have authentic and immersive experiences, meet people, taste the local food and savour its culture.

“So, we have to manage externalities such as gentrification, traffic congestion and residents leaving the old city for suburbs.

“Imagine having a place full of hotels and cafes but without the living heritage.

“There must be a policy to retain existing residents and attract new ones. The local council is onto something good with its ‘repopulating George Town’ programme.

“I am sure we would not want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs,” Murali said.

A key condition for the Unesco World Heritage Site status is that the development in George Town does not adversely affect its multi-

cultural trading status in South-East Asia, multicultural and religious traditions in Asia and its unique architecture and townscape in the region.

Citing the negative effects of mass tourism in Venice, Italy, since the 1980s as an example, Murali said George Town could benefit from studying its experience.

He said the number of residents in Venice dwindled to 55,000 last year.

“It was 161,000 in 1931, while the number of annual visitors stood at 20 million and this kept rising.

“It has changed the structure of the city. Everything is just for tourists and residents are cast aside,” he said.

Murali said he believed plans were in place to enhance visitors’ experience through public realm improvements such as pedestrian amenities and improving public transportation.

He also suggested that the authorities have in mind a “maximum number” of tourist arrivals so that the carrying capacity of the heritage site would not be breached.

“We have to bear in mind the 9,000-odd residents who live in the heritage site.

“The current transportation infrastructure such as designated parking spaces for tour buses, designated cycle and trishaw-only lanes and even bus-only lanes must be in place so that George Town remains pleasant for the locals,” he said.

Pengkalan Kota assemblyman Daniel Gooi said over-commercialisation of the Unesco site, especially at the Chew Jetty, could jeopardise its heritage values.

“We need to maintain certain control over the commercial activities as tourism is booming and the residents are capitalising on this with business activities,” he said.

Gooi said because of this, the state government had set up a special committee under the Tourism Development, Heritage, Culture and Arts Committee to look into the impact of such commercial activities.

“We are looking at both commercial and residential elements to co-exist.

“This is one of the efforts to preserve the recognition and help boost the local economy as well,” he said.

Former George Town Festival director Joe Sidek said the word “heritage” alone was insufficient to pull in the crowd.

“Anything else that is man-made or money-can-buy, other places will have too,” he said.

Joe added that there was no need for too many non-cultural festivals.

“Storytelling is an important factor and we have many to share. However, we need tourists who do not destroy our place.

“We need those who spend a lot of money and want to learn our culture, architecture and food,” he said.

He added that the state Tourism Masterplan, which is in the pipeline, would make a huge difference.