Beyond the glossy brochures of Penang boasting of sandy beaches and promising an unforgettable stay, what do tourists actually make of the place?
Blog reader Sean describes his recent experience on the island. Notice that the need for proper and unobstructed pedestrian walkways figures prominently in his impressions of the place:
It wasn’t awful! There are bits and pieces that are quite good, but it didn’t give us the impression of a proper tourist destination – more somewhere that had moved on from being popular with tourists and had its sights focussed elsewhere now. Perhaps we were just not Penang Tourism’s target market. We were impressed by Rapid Penang – with two small kids, the reliable, clean, cool, inexpensive buses with their cheerful, helpful drivers were marvellous. The ‘frequency’ schedule was great for us on holiday, but I guess it might not be ideal if you’re commuting to work.
I think my biggest difficulty with some of the better-known South East Asian tourist destinations (not just Penang, though I think Penang was among the worst in this aspect) was that it was almost impossible to walk anywhere. You can’t really ‘experience’ a holiday destination – particularly on a short visit – from the inside of a taxi. We have to drive a lot in our day-to-day lives, so we expect to be able to really relax and walk around on holiday.
I did have to laugh, while dodging the obstacles on the destroyed path along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah (in contrast to the path along Jalan Kelawei?), about the only other people we saw trying to walk along it: other tourists! We live at PD, so Batu Ferringhi seemed a familiar experience. It seems like the beaches don’t have quite enough people caring that they should be great places at which families can relax to prevent them being taken over by people racing speedboats and jetbikes up and down close to the shore, and people racing quadbikes on the sand. Those activities always mean that a tiny number of people monopolise the beach. Perhaps a few people running those businesses make a small amount of money, but I suspect the loss to the tourism industry from people who can’t enjoy a safe, peaceful holiday is far greater than that gain.
I really enjoyed the old places where we ate between the newer buildings . The old place between Tune Hotel and the new Food Court was the kind of thing I expected. Eating at the pasar malam on Gurney Drive was good too, but crossing the road outside was a bit of a nightmare. I don’t mind eating at Starbucks or Old Town when I’m at Jaya Jusco or the airport, but it’s not what I go on holiday for. The laksa (with no plastic chairs, tables, bowls nor utensils!) near the T-junction below Kek Lok Si (so many elderly beggars) Temple was superb. We saw too many temples – perhaps a poor choice on our part. The kids were bored stiff, and even we were “uh-uh, more temple” by the end. We enjoyed a trishaw ride, but worried about such an old man and obviously poor emissions controls on exhausts. My wife was obviously concerned – she didn’t haggle over the generous fare (I won’t tell you how much we paid to go 500 metres) – a very rare event!
Street signage was something we appreciated. It makes a huge difference when you’re trying to find your own way between the attractions that you can easily find out where you are. I think Penang Tourism could do themselves and Penang a big favour if they just got out their sun-hats and string bags for a week and attempted to walk around Penang as a tourist would, and try not to keep a friend in a car waiting near the kerb – as a tourist can’t.
Bangkok (or was it Chiang Mai?) does a good job of mapping out a network of quiet side-streets and alleyways that are kept in good condition where its possible to get around on foot – maybe Penang could consider something similar. Just having some sort of consistent path between adjacent buildings that isn’t used for motorbike parking or as a business extension might be sufficient.
On the subject of whose fault it is, I honestly think Penang should be honest (not finger-pointing) with tourists and rather than just provide a glossy list of attractions, some of which are shut or were photographed and described in what I can only imagine were better days, actually say that some places are either ‘undergoing repair’ or are ‘earmarked for badly needed restoration’ or such similar phrases whose real meaning will not be lost on visitors. The problem with marketing that doesn’t accurately describe reality is that it can raise expectations which leave a lasting bad impression if disappointed.
I think it would be interesting for tourists (and perhaps even for locals!) to see a comprehensive plan for Penang tourism that includes not only the highlights, but also those areas where planned improvements might make a return visit more likely. If a comparison helps (and I know I’ve only made short visits to these two), while I’m in no hurry to return to Penang, I’m looking forward to a second visit to Melaka. Melaka seems like a much smaller destination than Penang, but I found it much more amenable to me as a tourist – I think the large pedestrian areas may have made all the difference.