GEORGE TOWN, Sept 26 — Over the past 13 years — coinciding with the city’s inscription as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008 — the city of George Town has become known for much more than its excellent street food.
Boutique hotels, especially those located in the heritage zone, were particularly popular with out-of-state visitors as well as international tourists as they were uniquely adapted and retained the building’s original heritage features.
Now — together with most other businesses — many of these are struggling to stay afloat after 18 months of frequent closures.
One of these is Noordin Mews which is located at the border of the heritage zone right in the heart of George Town.
Hotel manager Belinda Boey said the hotel has closed since January this year and only a small number of staff were kept on for basic maintenance and cleaning of the hotel.
“We did have some business in June and July last year when everything reopened after the first movement control order but after that, it continued to go downhill as most of our customers are Europeans,” she said.
International borders have closed since March last year while interstate travel has been frequently disrupted throughout the different iterations of the movement control order since last year.
Boey said most of the hotel staff found other jobs last year and the hotel did not hire new ones as they could already foresee that they would not be getting a high number of bookings due to the closure of international borders.
However, they are now hopeful that interstate travel might be allowed soon as the hotel has been getting week-long bookings from out-of-state customers.
“We are getting bookings for December so we will prepare to reopen the hotel at that time. Hopefully interstate travel will have reopened by then,” she said.
She added the hotel building belonged to the owner so they don’t have to worry about rent and have managed to stay afloat till now.
Over at Ren I Tang Heritage Inn which is in the heart of Little India, operations manager Eu Yeok Siew said they are open but they hardly have any guests since interstate travel is still not allowed.
The hotel which opened back in 2017 won a special mention under the category of conservation, enhancement and adaptation at the George Town World Heritage Incorporated’s (GTWHI) Heritage Recognition Award 2020.
Ren I Tang also used to enjoy a high number of bookings from international and out-of-state travellers.
“We are using this time to repurpose some of our spaces,” Eu said. One of the spaces on the ground floor of the hotel has been converted into an Indian restaurant named Theeni Pandarams which started business on September 1.
Eu said they have to think out of the box while they wait for interstate and international borders to reopen.
“We want to create more spaces where we can have more interactions such as this restaurant which is in collaboration with the restaurant operator and we are planning to open a cafe and bar soon where our museum is now,” she said.
She said the hotel is located in a busy spot in the heart of Little India so the opening of an Indian restaurant fits its location perfectly.
Eu added that food is the only business that can remain open, with delivery and takeaways, even during lockdowns and this will at least provide some revenue.
She said they hoped to finish repurposing and open their cafe, bar and museum by next month.
“We only hope that interstate travel will reopen by then so that we can get more bookings,” she added.
The hotel has also been able to hang on for so long due to its minimal staff of only four and rental discounts from its landlord, the Cheah Kongsi.
Seven Terraces, the jewel in the George Town Heritage Hotels (GTHH) group, has also been working hard to drum up business in the last 18 months.
The recipient of an honorary mention under the category of conservation, enhancement and adaptation at George Town World Heritage Incorporated’s (GTWHI) Heritage Recognition Award 2020, Seven Terraces too has not been able to welcome as many guests as before because of the pandemic.
GTHH owner Chris Ong said he organised various events like afternoon tea soirees and even pop-up boutiques in every room of one of his other hotels Muntri Mews and Kebaya nights at Seven Terraces.
“We also offered private catering services where we send chefs to prepare meals for the birthdays of elderly parents whose children could not come back to celebrate with them,” he said.
He said the hotels under GTHH continued to get bookings when interstate travel was allowed and there were also bookings by business travellers but the number of bookings had definitely dropped.
At one point, to spur interest and get more bookings, Seven Terraces even slashed its prices by half.
“We also collaborated with Malaysia Airlines in August and September last year for a domestic travel package to Penang where the guests stayed at our hotel and we curated the heritage experience of George Town for them,” he said.
Despite all these, he said they still had to implement cost cutting measures such as a salary cut in April last year and another one in July this year.
Ong himself has not taken a salary since March last year in order to preserve some of the company’s reserves.
“I would like to create events again, to highlight the importance of our heritage and how it can still play a role in the new world order,” he said.
He is now looking into creating a house museum experience for guests so that they can experience and visit the home of a gentleman Baba.
“It is not easy making plans now because there is this uncertainty about policies... we do not know what will be allowed and disallowed so plans may have to be cancelled if there is a change in policy,” he said.
Seven Terrace’s restaurant Kebaya Dining Room is now open for dine-in for fully vaccinated individuals while Mews Cafe at Muntri Mews will be open for dine-in from September 24 onwards.
Another hotel that is a restored heritage building is The Edison George Town along Leith Street that has been closed since late May this year.
Its executive director Rina Teoh said the hotel staff has been working in a limited capacity to maintain the hotel since its temporary closure.
The hotel reopened on September 20 after sanitising the whole hotel and all its rooms.
“Currently with ‘Your Safety Our Priority’ promise, we are not assigning back to back use of our guest rooms, meaning there is a 24-hour lead time to disinfect and sanitise the guest rooms before they are assigned for guests’ use,” she said.
She also hoped that interstate travel would be allowed, with strict compliance of SOPs, as this would help to boost the tourism industry and hotels in the state.