Does George Town’s 4th place in Lonely Planet’s list put it among world’s top 10 cities?


While there is much back-slapping over the accolade of being listed No. 4 in Lonely Planet’s ranking of places to visit in 2016, it is important to be clear what that list represents and what it is not.

The promotion of the arts and its heritage streetscape certainly have contributed to making George Town a place worth savouring during a visit – and well done to the state and local governments for recognising this and to outfits like Penang Heritage Trust and Think City for playing a big role.

But the key word used by Lonely Planet is “visit”. So, this is not a ranking of the most liveable cities for local residents. It is a listing of the “best countries, regions and cities to visit in 2016” – not a listing of “the world’s 10 best cities”, as one daily put it.

The geographical area covered by the Lonely Planet citation seems to be George Town alone – its tantalising blend of heritage streetscape and architecture, boutique hotels, trendy touristy cafes and eye-catching street art. Some of the places recommended for cuisine and accommodation would be well outside the budget of local residents, who are reeling from the impact of GST.

Neither does the Lonely Planet citation cover the rest of the state of Penang or even the rest of Penang Island. Thus it doesn’t include quality of life for local residents: the affordability of food and homes, the state of our natural heritage like our degraded hills, beaches and sea water, the question of affordability of decent education and healthcare, and the adequacy of our public transport.

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There are other more detailed surveys and rankings (even though they each have their own shortcomings) for the world’s most liveable cities. Not surprisingly, George Town is not featured in any of these top ten lists. Some of these listings, however, are targeted at foreign retirees, expats and seasoned travellers who wouldn’t mind paying RM20(!) for a disappointing stroll inside Fort Cornwallis (see video above).

For a debate on Penang as an international city vs a liveable city, check this out.

So while we can be pleased that George Town is now widely acknowledged as a place worth visiting for a couple of days, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that Penang is one of the world’s most liveable places for local residents.

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  1. Penang is still very backward as for as disabled access is concerned. Take a look at the Botanic Garden and the food court beside Fort Cornwallis. These popular places for both locals and tourists, used to have basic disabled access many years ago. But lately, the reverse is true (there are many tourists who use wheelchairs). Bars have blocked wheelchair users from going to the food court and Botanic Garden’s accessible toilet is no longer there. I love Penang but sadly it is still far far away from a disabled friendly city.

    • That is a real shame if development doesn’t take into account the needs of people with disabilities.

  2. ‘ Katak dalam tempurong ‘, jangan syok sendiri, tolong pergi tengok luar negara macam mana mereka memelihara heritage. saya tak tengok ada apa-apa keistimewaan telah dibuat, (kalau ada) rasuah punya group jaga Heritage, macam mana boleh jadi baik(?)

  3. While the island appears to be heaven for tourists seeking cheap boutique & exotic food thrills, Anil very likely to feature an article on the concerns of middle classes regarding imminent retrenchments at FTZ MNCs…….how to pay home n car installment payments when incomes ate affected by that R word?

  4. Don’t think people are getting carried away with this piece of news…just few dailies misinterpreting it.

    Am sure Penangites are smart enough to know what it is- a ranking done by a travelling website for travelers on which place is best to travel in.
    The name speaks for itself- The best places in the world to travel in 2016 by Lonely Planet.

    And yes, still much to be done by the state government!
    (But of course kudos to those who contributed in Georgetown’s success)

    • Do not forget that weak ringgit makes Penang an attractive place for foreigners to visit. Lonely Planet must have considered this factor, as its readers are mostly back-packers looking for cheap bargain.

      • Unfortunately Penang could only attract cheapskate backpackers traveling on budget. Better to have a casino (at Jerejak?) to lure the high rollers to benefit the local economy?

  5. Penang is “The Place To Visit Before One Dies”.
    It has a ‘combo’ of heavenly street hawker cuisine, heritage ambience of diverse architecture, myriad & colourful festivities all year round, some remaining human elements of past heritage like old craftsmen, unique multi-cultural coexistence & friendly Penangites. The present ‘Cosmopolitan ke-liao’ of boutique hotels, hip-hop cafes & thematic restaurants make it the more receptive to a wider range of tourists from the slippery-clean Japanese / Koreans to the authentic cultural seekers from Europe.
    But each tourist has his/her own expectation. What draws them here may not be quite apparent to our senses or of high priority to our needs & ‘dulled’ experiences as locals. So to speak, our differing local expectation from cultural tourism as a business or as an opportunity to share Penang as The Place To Visit.
    We should not confuse ourselves judging the quality of life, environmental issues & local lifestyle (which are as subjective as the varied stratas of society) in comparison with this Lonely Planet’s listing which solely aims at the tourism aspect than social-economic justice or state achievement.
    Tourism opens up opportunities for locals to participate & hopefully earn something from it, whether it be financial, friendship, cultural exchange or becoming famous for something, which by itself is a rewarding brand attraction. As in all things, it is not a perfect solution or opportunity but requires careful strategising, planning, implementation & monitoring. The details are better left to the natural course of business, local participation & socio-cultural interaction / adaptation.
    Tourists come here for the unique x-periences. They are not too concerned with who is not living a good life here.
    The socio-cultural-economic-environmental issues or concerns are better left to the relevant authorities, NGOs, etc to tackle.
    Now, what do we want of Penang – as the place for tourists to visit or the place to live happily as locals?
    Sometimes, I may have to change my taste for Kopi-O kau kau to Kopi Susu kau kau to suit the occasion or ambience or my state of mind. More so in Cosmopolitan Penang for tourists, Penangites & lingering souls of Old World Charm George Town.

    • Penang The Place Foreigners Visit & The Place Locals live with pride and dignity could be the next tagline moving forward? What say you Mr Anil?

      • Yes, catchy tag-line – except many are struggling with the higher cost of living including property and private transport prices.

      • Rent home for now while waiting for Penang private properties to crash at reasonable pricing.

        If cannot tolerate RapidPenang, get a 2nd hand Viva affordable at RM12k range.

        Put aside ” binchooi ” and can live with self prescribed dignity/pride not affected by commercialised face values.

    • Penang – The Place Foreigners Visit & The Place Locals Live with Pride and Dignity is a possibility.
      What is required is a political will + vision + private initiatives to make tourism a socio-economic balance that cares for the locals first.

      Let us look at today’s reality:
      Money Makes Disneyland.
      In Penang’s situation, the lack of massive tourism development fund (besides selective funding from Think City, a special project vehicle (SPV) established by Khazanah Nasional Berhad & UNESCO) means more financial reliance on private sector participation. A case in point is George Town Festival, a month-long Festival celebrating the Arts, Heritage and Culture in George Town. Joe Sidek has had his hands full managing with great success though still running the annual programme with tight sponsorship. Many of refurbished old houses are partially funded from Think City to revive the old world charm ambience & lost cultural assets.

      Since the UNESCO Heritage status for George Town, tourism-related infrastructures like boutique / thematic hotels, cafes & restaurants (which are mostly private enterprise initiatives with profit in mind) mushroomed like in Alice in Wonderland. Acquiring a prewar house & turning it into one of the above runs into millions – not a cheap initiative. But still, there are those esp from Singapore who ‘dare to fail’ in investing here as they see potentials in Penang’s cultural tourism. Maybe they saw our authentic assets still in abundance compared to SingLand’s plasticised & highly regulated & ‘museumised’ cultural assets. Therefore, market forces of demand & supply usually dictate inner city property prices as they are deemed of high commercial value rather than for residential purposes to prospective investors. This situation would not have happened during the Rent control era favouring the local renters who made up the ‘authentic cultural assets’ of people, cultures & lifestyles, which incidentally attracted the cultural tourism seekers from Europe, Japan & Australia. Thus, the unique cultural assets of Penang tourism made global brand over the decades.
      In a ‘fast’ pace to establish old world charm George Town as a global city, much of present development are commercial driven which led to high rentals & prices beyond the affordability of locals. Ask this beyond the bin-chui factor: How many locals can afford a boutique hotel stay in any one in inner city George Town? Or a cuppa of kopi-o in a thematic cafe? And there are land / property owners willing to cash-out to the highest bidder in such surreal property market leading to controversial evictions of locals, some of whom have stayed for generations, & the eventual demise of some old trades & cultures.
      Why so many trendy boutique hotels? Who will want to run an old world authentic hotel like Blue Mansion without investing much more on authenticity & lots of time building a brand. Boutique hotels usually attract a wider segment of customer base to make it profitable in the longer run as opposed to highly segmented upmarket of the Blue Mansion types.

      No Commercialism, No Tourism?
      In Penang, we don’t have Mr Disney with vision + money to run an integrated tourism + socio-economic balance. Much of today’s tourism development is haphazard & skewed to cosmopolitan flavour of commercialism – just to make it happens. Thinking out of the cash box is too time consuming & risky to bear by the state with its little funding to take the road less travelled. ‘Showcasing’ is the name of the fast-track game mostly dictated by the financiers who can fulfil a superficial part of Penang tourism assets, recreated or plasticised. The people aspect takes a back seat as it opposes much of commercialism of their place of birth for an ideal local lifestyle in situ.
      Going back in time to the 80s-90s, Penang was an intriguing place to visit authentic cultures – of quaint architectures, unique lifestyles of Penangites, thriving old trades, colour festivals all year round & irresistible street hawker cuisine. All these were authentic which made it first class tourism spot in Asia, then & till yesterday. But today, we lost a great deal of what it took to make Penang or is it Old World Charm George Town famous beyond words. Can commercialism be an alternative to grow & sustain cultural tourism at the expense of the locals?

      Q: Can political will + vision + private initiatives make tourism a socio-economic balance that cares for the locals first? A lot of thinking & work need to be done in a room of conflicting interests – social vs commercialism. Dare to risk taking the road less travelled is not an option if there’s a genuine political will to change the status quo in a climate of political-corporate skewed tendencies.

      • Don’t die becoming a hungry ghost missing Penang heavenly street hawker cuisine!
        You may not have long purplish tongue to lick the street hawker food nor generous Penangites to offer free road side food placed at street corners during Hungry Ghost Month in the near future of slippery-clean Cosmopolitan Penang.
        Note: Pg gomen may ban burning of joss sticks + Hell’s notes + food offering during Hungry Ghost Month in the future.

  6. To those who don’t like what’s happening in Penang you can try other places like KL. Bitching don’t get you anywhere. Problem solved with less people in the island.

    • This is about the same as some people saying if you are not happy with what’s happening in Malaysia, go elsewhere.

      • Some like Bee-T-And can’t rid of the word “pendatang”, an opportunistic slang to puff up its ultra-racist sickness & to coverup its phobia of multiculturalism, which btw is the way to co-existence in the globalised centuries now & to come.

  7. Gerakan folks lately have been making noise (reported widely on Chinese newspapers) that at least a hundred old shop houses in the heritage zone have been bought by Singapore and Australian developers (at an average price of RM2 million each) to convert them into boutique hotels and cafes.

      • Heritage zone needs hotels to attract tourist dollars since the manufacturing sector on the Penang island is losing investors.

      • Recently many unlicensed ones were raided.
        Is it too difficult to operate legally?

      • I heard some hotels had problems with Bomba being concerned over wooden floors but heritage regulations making it difficult to remove old wooden floors. Or something like that.

      • From their conversations, many (affordable) Chinese parents prefer to send their children overseas “just in case” of any contingency and they will be more convenient to move about with the help of the “oversea-connected” children ! Since one cannot leave it to the last minute, right ?

  8. Prefer Penang being less prominent otherwise influx of tourists and unsustainable commercialism inevitably drive up cost of livings, and create visible distinctions between have and not have capitalist indulgence domestic debts?

  9. The Penang island and it’s Butterworth territory is still far off from being among top 100 cities.
    Here is my top 10 list for Prince of Wales Island to do.
    1- Stray canines
    2- Homeless & beggars
    3- Jaga Kereta menace & addicts
    4- Insect borne diseases such as Dengue and Malaria
    5- Pollution such as noise level , vehicles&factories toxic gas control,raw sewage and raw industrial waste discharges
    6- Effective roads , public transport ,traffic management and traffic accidents %
    7- Effective police force doing crime prevention and no nonsense local authorities
    8- Affordable and efficient public healthcare (Klinik 1Malaysia is NOT to be included , unless they are proven to manned by real doctors with real medic facilities)
    9- Allocating space and low charges for the dead such as cemeteries, columbarium & high standard cremation facilities
    10- A free Penang society that have common sense & pro UN human rights (This might be unrealistic as we do have a large number of racist,bigoted, stuck-up religionist Malaysians )

    of course it takes more than the above 10. Even Singapore is unable to lick all it;s problems.
    Just do what is possible and make Penang a fantastic place and Best Place in Malaysia.

    • Some things are not entirely the governments fault..

      Stray canine- irresponsible pet owners

      Dengue- inconsiderate people with unhygienic practices (throwing rubbish wherever they like, accumulating water puddles in homes, blocked drains, creating mosquito breeding grounds etc. )

      All in all, it takes everyone to make penang a better place…it wont happen overnight, but Im optimistic that it will given time

      • This is where and why a society and government both must have common sense.
        All canines & felines sold in pet shop must be sterilized
        The breeding of rodents,insects and mosquitoes are due to our irresponsible acts . Am sure nobody ever climb up to their roof to check their gutter. It is always blocked .
        Penang need more sensible and sane people.
        Hopefully things gets better.

        * We should also mention thanks to Mark Wiens & his Thai friend (Ying) for making several good informative videos of GeorgeTown&Penang Island. It is video bloggers like them that make the place attractive.
        Have to agree that Fort Cornwallis RM20 ticket price sucks.
        Thank you


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