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.
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.