Project seeks to balance tourism, heritage in George Town and Malacca

Tourists walking around the World Heritage site during the George Town Festival in Penang, August 21, 2014. — Picture by K.E. Ooi
Tourists walking around the World Heritage site during the George Town Festival in Penang, August 21, 2014. — Picture by K.E. Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, March 17 — Can heritage be preserved in the midst of a booming tourism industry that threatens to turn a living city into a tourist town?

In the cases of Unesco heritage sites George Town in Penang and Malacca, the answer appeared to be the affirmative.

According to a case study by Unesco World Heritage on sustainable tourism, George Town and Malacca were cited as sites that encouraged residents' participation in decision-making processes in the management plan for the heritage site.

"This allows people to share their vision of the world heritage site and identify what opportunities they want to exploit, as well as share their own experiences of how management decisions are affecting people in the longer term," the study said.

It also mentioned how these sites demonstrated the importance of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) as a tourist attraction and to use it to attract only the types of visitors who value the characteristics of a world heritage site.

"George Town and Malacca were picked as examples of cities to learn from when it comes to sustainable tourism and though we still have room for improvements, it shows that we are on the right path so far," said George Town World Heritage Inc (GTWHI) general manager Dr Ang Ming Chee said of the Unesco case study.

The case study was part of a guide on governance in Unesco's sustainable tourism toolkit meant for managers of world heritage tourism destinations and stakeholders.

Unesco also started a pilot project involving several Southeast Asia cities to conduct a series of workshops on sustainable tourism through stakeholders' involvement.

George Town and Malacca, which were jointly inscribed in the world heritage list, Bali and the rice terraces of Philippine were chosen for the project entitled, "The Power of Culture: Supporting Community-Based Management and Sustainable Tourism at World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia."

"We held the first workshop in Malacca in November last year and today's workshop involved about 40 stakeholders here," Ang said.

The outcome of the workshops was to have the stakeholders come up with proposals on implementing measures and policies for sustainable tourism in order to balance tourism with heritage at the respective world heritage sites, she said.

The workshops will also look at strengthening the cooperation between George Town and Malacca to implement sustainable tourism strategy that will be developed at the end of the process.

She said one of the strategies they are referring to as a guideline is the "Protect and Prosper: Sustainable tourism in the Wadden Sea" carried out by a sustainable tourism strategy task group.

In the workshop held at the Teochew Association here today, discussion groups presented their proposals on sustainable tourism that involved engaging with the stakeholders and encouraging the local communities to take charge of the site themselves.

"We should encourage local participation and the local communities to take it back. It is the same as gentrification, we keep blaming foreigners for coming here to buy our properties, so why are we selling our properties? We should take it back instead of being angry," said George Town Festival director Joe Sidek who is in one of the discussion groups.

The first step his group proposed was to educate local communities and to create awareness on the benefits of tourism before engaging them.

This is followed by the stakeholders and the tourism industry giving back to sustain and preserve the heritage site such as the fees the local council charged on hotel rooms per night.

"The hotel fee of RM3 is a good example because it goes to a pool which is then channelled back to festivals for the city," Joe said.

He said everyone involved should be giving back to sustain the city, even when organising festivals, it should be organised to educate and inspire the local communities and not to attract foreigners.

The two-day workshop continues tomorrow where proposals by the discussion groups are consolidated to be presented at the assessment workshop in May.

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