The old town of Georgetown (Penang) was listed as UNESCO Word Heritage in 2008. Visit Georgetown nowadays and you will see a town in deep transformation, with attractive shophouse facades without unsightly air-con compressors or bulky, ugly industrial signboards, houses tastefully converted into hotels and guesthouses. Although conservation-trained eyes will point out to you that part of what you see is not more than a ‘pastiche’ of the old, not undertaken according to heritage standards and using inappropriate materials, some buildings have been renovated under state-of-the art conservation guidelines. The number of visitors and tourists is increasing.
But of late, Georgetown has been in the news not so much to acclaim success in urban beautification and heritage management, but for the “loss of soul” that has emerged in the process. Have a look at just the titles of the series of press articles listed below (click on them to see them in full).
What is happening? In short, the boom in heritage tourism that followed the UNESCO listing is affecting Georgetown’s authenticity, the special “sense of place” that the old town conveys. The traditional trades and businesses such as hardware dealers, furniture, mechanic or locksmiths or metal workshops have been key contributors to the heritage city’s character. They are being pushed out from the bases that have housed them, sometimes for generations and often as simple tenants, to give place to tourist shops, trendy bars, cafes, restaurants, hotels. Houses are converted into holiday homes. Price of real estate in the heritage area has shot up. Residential population is declining.
The quote by a resident, in one of the articles below, sums it all up: “Just because the city is a Unesco heritage site, properties have become so expensive that regular people can’t rent or buy. It is not right. Shouldn’t it be about conserving heritage?.” There is indeed cause for concern, because it is precisely the values of authenticity – created by Georgetown’s unique blend of ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ assets that were key to the UNESCO listing.
The Penang Heritage Trust (PTH), an NGO, is vocal on the issue and remains on its guard. “We are losing our intangible heritage values fast. We cannot replace real heritage with manufactured heritage.” Said PTH president Khoo Salma Nasution.
In March 2015, the Penang state Government announced that it will rely on a new Special Area Plan (SAP) in evaluating future applications by property owners, in spite of the fact that the plan has not been gazetted so far. The SAP is said to detail what is and is not permitted in the heritage zones, limiting for example, conversion of buildings into hotels. The issue of hospitality businesses which operate without proper license has also been raised by the State local government.
To outsiders like us, these problems act as reminders of the threats to which well-intentioned heritage conservation programmes are faced. They are well known. As recalled for example, in guidelines from the Hoi An Protocol for Best Conservation Practice in Asia, they emanate, among others, from the pressure to maximise the economic potential of land and from “commodifying” of cultural assets by cultural tourism.
“Policies of preservation that have led us to look upon our cultural resources as tourism products are the reason for our relative lack of success in conservation. This is an attitude we must correct if we are ever going to succeed in placing culture where it rightfully belongs, as the foundation of development” stated the above-mentioned guidelines almost 15 years ago.
Along the same line, Sarawak Heritage Society president, Karen Shepherd said at a recent training workshop for Sarawak tour guides: “Heritage and tourism are not natural partners, contrary to popular belief. When carefully managed, tourism can help to support heritage conservation, through awareness and of course income generation. However, tourism can cause untold damages. [The right perspective is] that we share our collective heritage with our visitors rather than allow them to dictate its future.”
This must not be read as a crusade against heritage tourism. It is only a reminder that the benefits of heritage management must be shared by all stakeholders. The tourism industry is but one of them.
 Hoi An Protocols for Best Conservation Practice in Asia: Professional guidelines for assuring and preserving the authenticity of heritage sites in the context of cultures of Asia ( 2001), p. 15
14 April 2015: “Vital to manage impacts of cultural heritage tourism, says expert“