Tourism has been vital to Penang for decades, but a competent history of it has yet to be written to give due credit to the key actors involved, to describe the twists and turns and ups and downs of the industry over time, and to understand the debates and policies affecting its development.
Today, health and culture are Penang’s distinctive attractions. Our beaches are no longer much for tourists to write home about; nature lovers can easily find more exciting spots on the peninsula; and the conference industry is still in its adolescent stage.
To be sure, these lesser aspects of tourism do complement the major pillars that have put Penang in recent years onto positive ranking lists throughout the world. One thing to note is that tourism in Penang in the end is closely tied to its reputation as a charming place for regional retirees to set up home.
There is no doubt at the moment that tourism in Penang is on an upward trend, boosted by freer and cheaper air travel, invigorated by the state’s inhabitants’ sustained ability to have a government of their own choosing and globalised by its Unesco heritage listing. Also, people in the greater Asia region are getting more and more interested in South-East Asia, and they now have the means to holiday.
In short, Penang is in a very good place right now. There is therefore all the more reason to understand it in the contexts – in time and space – in which it finds itself. Penang largely lives off its free trade and industrial zones, and its ability to be inspiring for both long-stay and short-stay visitors. (I use “visitors” most consciously here as the generic term for all those living elsewhere coming to Penang. This is because Penang, as mentioned, attracts tourists and alternative lifestyle seekers at the same time, not to mention investors and many other categories of people.)
There are impressive models already developed to study the developmental stages and the pitfalls that tourism resorts throughout the world face – the Butler Model of Tourism Development being one of the more comprehensive and advanced ones .
At this point, I am reminded of a strategic train of thought that Dr Goh Keng Swee, Singapore’s economic tsar, had in the 1960s. He realised that if one passively thought of Singapore simply as a tourist destination at a time when tourists were largely coming from America and Japan and heading for Hong Kong and Bangkok, with only very few sidetripping down to Singapore, then the future of tourism in Singapore was quite predictable and its ability to develop quite limited.
What Goh then sought to do was to encourage the Indonesians to revive Bali into the global resort that the island had been back in the 1920s. How directly he succeeded in doing this, I do not know, but Bali did become a big attraction again in the following decades, and travellers heading for it found it worth their while to pass through Singapore. In 2014 passenger traffic at Changi airport reached a whooping 54.1 million.
How can this clearly ingenious thought be applicable to Penang today? The tendency among tourism strategists is still to think of Penang as a destination. But if tour industry players widen their strategic thinking to consider Penang as entry point or transit point for travel into the whole of Malaysia, especially the northern region, the increase in traffic and activity level would benefit the state tremendously.
Alternatively, tourism in the whole northern region could be coordinated and packaged as one single tourist destination and, for starters, sold to tourists as such. Planned properly, the resources and infrastructure already existent there would be maximally used and would profit all concerned.