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

The Future of Tourism—Only as Bright as We Make It

By OOI KEE BENG. Editorial for Penang Monthly, November 2022

SINCE INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL became possible post-Covid, I have, for various reasons, been staying in at least five countries for substantial periods of time, including in Malaysia. A common change that took place between 2020 and 2023 seems evident to me. In all of the countries, I have noted an enhanced consciousness and interest among common folk in local conditions—in what transpires in their neighbourhood, in who their neighbours are and in how these behave.

There has been a spontaneous growth in civic consciousness. This new mindset is not necessarily concerned about the common good, but it has definitely come into being quite clearly due to mobility having been highly limited and to people feeling a need to explore the minutiae of their immediate surroundings. To overstate my point somewhat, they have been like prisoners acquainting themselves with the four walls of their cells. Collectively, they have placed more demands on their wardens and the authorities, who, showing unusual understanding, have been more responsive and ready to meet them halfway.

At the international level, this change is broadly captured and described in terms of a globe-spanning rise in nationalist and patriotic sentiments on one hand, and as disruptions in economic processes on the other—be these in product supply chains, education and career pathways or inter-civilisational integration.

In terms of human mobility, travel tendencies have regionalised, or localised to be more exact. Taking trips to countries in the vicinity or within national borders has become much more the norm than before March 2020. The young choose to stay closer to home for their advanced studies, working overseas, in general, appears less attractive now, and tourist trips to the opposite side of the world, however exotic these would once have been, now threaten to be more labour than leisure. International travel is indeed undergoing a protracted crisis. Even politicians have cut down on their junket trips; I rest my case.

For industries that rely on international mobility to survive, like tertiary education, tourism and the travel sector in general, the disruption is very real and calls for new thinking and radical solutions.

For tourism, disruptions were already deeply felt before 2020. For example, travel agents had been having a hard time adjusting to a world where social media and online booking possibilities dumped most of them on the rubbish heap of digitalisation.

Discussions about the future of tourism have been fervent, and critical analyses of tourism as an industry where success spells its own doom have argued that mass global tourism cannot help but turn its favourite destinations into superficial showcases, whose inhabitants become less and less welcoming of short-term visitors despite their reliance on the latter.

The Future of Tourism

In Malaysia as elsewhere, domestic tourism has filled the vacuum left by the absence of international tourists. This has tended to lower standards—and prices—and may, over time, contribute to the provincialisation of attitudes and tastes. Cultural isolationism is in danger of increasing in the post-Covid world.

But there is no shade without light, no loss without an advantage, no retreat without an advance. Likewise for tourism.

Much has already been suggested in recent decades on how tourism, to be sustainable, needs to avoid undermining the sustainability of the socio-economic and cultural integrity of its destinations. The suggested measures often argue for a change of attitude on the part of the tourist; bold innovations in the marketing methods of the industry; and cognizance of the traps a tourism destination should avoid falling into.

Penang Institute, through its major mouthpiece, Penang Monthly, very much wants to provide a platform for the discussion on how Penang, as a globally popular tourist destination, is to develop.

First, Penang should not consider itself a passive destination that allows the tourism industry to design, define and determine its being. This is where experiential tourism becomes interesting. Experiential tourism expounds departure from the sightseeing nature of 20th-century post-war mass travel, and instead encourages visitors to partake and participate in whatever it is they find interesting to travel long distances to experience. This sounds like a possibility for the state to explore, given how Penang is loved for its urban as well as ecological wealth, its history as well as its modernity, and its Asian cultures as well as its strong connections to the rest of the world.

Heritage tourism undeniably holds a lot of potential for such undertakings, as does ecotourism. In that sense, Penang is well placed to develop a sustainable experiential tourism industry for the 21st century.

Second, tourism in Penang should not be defined by the low-end tourist. Although Penang has always been welcoming of all groups of people, the mass influx of tourists needs to be managed, and as a whole, kept economically profitable and ecologically sustainable at the same time.

Third, industry players who can provide infrastructure and products beneficial to the local society’s economic wellbeing need to be encouraged to enhance the unique aesthetics of the destination itself. For this, inspired state planning and bold implementation are required.

Tourism will remain important to Penang; many livelihoods depend on it. Upgrading it for the future and making sure that it is sustainable will benefit many households hugely. For that reason, Penang Institute through Penang Monthly will continue to contribute to the discussion, as it now does with this issue.


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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