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Articles, Commentaries, Economics, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Penang should make the most of transiting cruise tourists

By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial in Penang Monthly, February 2018

I assume anyone reading this has some time or other been one of those strange global creatures, disliked by some for their transient but disruptive presence and loved by others for their willingness to consume hastily and at inflated prices. I am talking about tourists.

When you cross a national boundary and you inform the stone-faced immigration officer that you are coming “for purposes of leisure”, then you become definitely that naïve thing we call a tourist. If you say you are “here on business”, then you are something else: you are an economic actor away for a few days from the office, or you are your own boss.

This difference is worth pondering over, just a bit. Who actually wants to know why you are coming, and is willing to take your word for it?

In fact, fewer and fewer countries now need you to say why you are visiting. They just want to know how long you are staying, and where, and if you can pay for the their incomegenerating visa – if they want to know at all. Is this because immigration departments are more trusting of visitors now? Hardly. In any case, if you have criminal objectives, you are not going to tell them that.

My suspicion is that the tools of control are so good nowadays that if you have entered a country legally, your whereabouts – if not your actions – are largely traceable, if not predictable. The fact that Malaysia now makes foreigners pay an extra fee for each night they put up at a hotel tells you that the system is quite confident of its ability to monitor tourist whereabouts – and to collect taxes accordingly.

A Modern Being

Tourism is very much a modern phenomenon. It is something that emerged with the rise of the middle classes, whose higher income and right to vacation time made travel and accommodation affordable. And it is marked by short stays, and often by large groups travelling. In fact, for the UN, tourism is defined by trips that do not keep the itinerant away from home for more than six months. Otherwise you are probably a refugee, a migrant or an expatriate. Or perhaps you are an old-time traveller, a dawdling wanderer whose stories over time can change the world, like Ibn Battuta, or Marco Polo, or Xuan Zhang, or some other Buddhist pilgrim.

When did travellers and wanderers, pilgrims and tradesmen, give way to sightseers and tourists?

In general, tourists come in groups, or they are so-called Free Independent Tourists, the FITs. And these are catered to in different ways by the tourist industry’s many arms. A domestic tourist is more difficult to define. Is he really a tourist at all? He is just travelling in his own country after all. To push the point, are there domestic tourists in a country like Singapore? And when is his or her expenditure part of the earnings of the tourist industry?

Come to think of it, local persons are generally considered to be poorer than foreign tourists nowadays, judging from how we make people without a MyKad pay much more in entrance fees – a sad sign that we are economically dropping behind globally, and are admitting it to be a permanent condition. An advanced country – and Malaysia is supposed to be that by 2020 – that uses a two-tiered pricing system with which to welcome foreigners?

Transiting Tourists

So, are tourists people who stay at hotels, or Airbnb apartments? What about tourists stopping by on cruise ships? They are in essence transiting, with some time and money to spend at the ports of call. They hardly contribute to hotel intakes.

Such tourists should actually be especially interesting for Penang’s tourism planners.

Singapore received about 16 million tourists in 2017. That same year, about 60 million passengers passed through Changi Airport. Most of the latter were obviously transiting, and that is a permanent condition for the island state with its enormous and upgraded airport – most visitors are just passing through. This explains why Changi’s terminals are all becoming giant shopping malls designed for people with a few prospectively boring hours to kill.

These travellers are a captive crowd, and what better consumers can there be than captive, bored and presumably rich people?

Since Penang, situated at the eastern end of the Bay of Bengal, the southern end of the Andaman Sea and the northern end of the Straits of Malacca, is now Malaysia’s most important stop on the cruise routes in the Indo-Pacific region, planning for and investing in providing tourists with chances to spend their foreign currencies during the few hours that they have to enjoy the firmness of land should be a top priority for the authorities responsible for tourism’s future in the state.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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