ON my bookshelf, there is a Lonely Planet Thailand “travel survival kit” written by American Joe Cummings, who travelled extensively as a backpacker (note the word “backpacker”) throughout South-East Asia.
He learned to speak Thai, and wrote several editions of the Thailand guidebook for Lonely Planet. He settled down in Chiang Mai before finally moving to Bangkok. My Thailand guidebook was published in 1996 and is long outdated, but I am reluctant to throw it away.
Tourist arrivals in George Town, Penang have skyrocketed since the city was recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site 11 years ago. To protect its world heritage status from mass tourism, there have been suggestions to limit the number of tourists who can visit the old city every day. Not surprisingly, many believe that we should give priority to the “wealthy” ones. Former George Town Festival director Joe Sidek, for example, said: We need (tourists) who spend a lot of money and want to learn our culture, architecture and food, “Saving George Town’s charm” (The Star, March 30).
Unfortunately, tourists who are interested in our culture, architecture and food are usually not those who stay in luxury hotels.
Wealthy tourists typically prefer five-star hotels, which do not reflect our traditional architecture. They enjoy their meals in high- class restaurants, which may serve European fine dining or Japanese wagyu beef.
In comparison, budget travellers often spend the night in family-owned guest houses, which were converted from traditional shophouses. They eat at our neighbourhood mamak stalls or kopitiam, and enjoy laksa, nasi kandar, cendol and char kuey teow.
They also travel by public transport, which gives them a chance to interact with the locals. They eat what locals eat, and do what locals do. In short, they are the ones who experience the authentic Malaysia.
It must also be pointed out that by choosing guest houses and street-side eateries, budget travellers contribute to the small and medium businesses which do not have the deep pockets to compete with large enterprises.
We want to earn money from tourism, so it is understandable that we welcome big spenders. But it would be foolish to turn away those who, like Cummings, are budget travellers.
CHEW KHENG SIONG