On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Make the Pearl of the Orient shine again

It may hurt but the fact is that the state lost its
competitive edge long ago. It's not news any more but what is sad is that there
appears to be a state of denial and indifference on the part of the state

The decay in Georgetown,
especially the inner city, is sad. Just count the number of shops along Penang
Road and Campbell Street,
once bustling areas, that have been forced to close.

The degradation of beach and environmental conditions at
its numerous tourist spots such as Penang Hill, Botanical Garden and Ferringhi
Beach has not helped either.

I see little point in anyone, especially politicians or
those in the tourism trade, pointing their fingers or being defensive because
the damage has been done.

It's better for the Penang leaders
to put on their thinking caps and come out with an innovative and creative
marketing approach to sell Penang as a popular

Last week, it was reported that tourists were bypassing
the state for more attractive destinations in the country and overseas.
According to the island's Tourism Action Council statistics, tourist arrivals,
both domestic and foreign, had been on the decline in recent years.

There were 3.78 million arrivals in 2000, compared to
3.03 million last year. In contrast, tourist arrivals in the country – except
last year – had been increasing.

There will always be disputes over statistics. The
officials will say their numbers are right, to justify and protect their
positions, while the operators will say they are on the ground and would know
better. Figures, they argue, can be manipulated and there would even be double
counting by officials to make themselves look good.

State Tourism Development Committee and Environment
committee chairman Teng Chang Yeow said the overall number of tourist arrivals
increased this year, compared with last year.

But another newspaper reported earlier, quoting a travel
writer, that Penang had disappeared from the radar
screen of the international hospitality and tourism investment scene.

"It's one of those insidious things that creep up on you
and even before you know it, it's happened and you don't even know when it took
root," Yeoh Siew Hoon wrote.

She related that she was attending the recent Hotel
Investment Conference Asia-Pacific in Hong Kong, the biggest annual gathering
of hotel investors and developers in the region, when "it suddenly dawned upon
me that Penang no longer figured in anyone's discussions, whether in conference
sessions or during coffee breaks".

Adding to the depressive scene is the closure of the
31-year-old Shangri-La Rasa Sayang Resort for a RM70mil redevelopment. Regarded
as the state's premier resort, it will only re-open some time in 2006.

Teng has responded to the tour operators' call for new
tourism products by naming new attractions such as the Islamic Museum, Peranakan
Museum, Penang
War Museum
and the Tropical Spice
Garden. Come on, the state cannot
be serious.

Teng surely cannot expect tourists to come in hordes to
look at these museums which other states already offer, such as Malacca and Kuala
Lumpur's Islamic Arts Museum.

Surely we can be more ambitious and more imaginative.
There has to be a strong political and financial commitment from our leaders to
put Penang in the limelight again.

Teng is right in saying that instead of blaming the
government for the drop in tourist arrivals, the tourism industry should
cooperate with the state to face this challenge together.

Penangites are parochial and passionately proud of their
state, like I am, and they would chide Teng, a Johorean, for not knowing Penang
as much as they do since they were born and bred there but an outsider's
perspective can bring fresh ideas and impetus, too.

The state should consider setting up an advisory council
of prominent Penangites from various industries, both living in Malaysia
and outside, to come out with a comprehensive plan.

These Penangites, with their extensive business, social
and political contacts, can form a powerful network to help revitalise Penang.
These people, having no agenda except their deep sense of belonging to Penang,
would serve as a good promotional tool for the state.

Whether the state leadership wishes to adopt their ideas
is essentially up to the state but Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon
should help pump the adrenaline of these Penangites.

The state leaders must seriously decide what kind of
identity Penang wishes to project. If it still wants Penang
to spell warm seas, golden beaches, lush greenery and delicious food, then the
money must be spent to keep it that way.

If Penang still wants to sell its
quaint old buildings, with its exotic mix of various cultures, sights and
sounds, then the state should not let the heritage homes decay and crumble.

If it wants to keep the island as a natural scenic
splendour, as one website tries to project Penang to
tourists, then the state must be more committed to keeping Penang

But there has to be new tourism products, as the tour
operators have pointed out. Penang seriously needs a
huge aquarium, in sync with its reputation as a sea state, that can match the
likes of those in Osaka, Shanghai
and Brisbane.

Penang can do with a bird park that is larger than the
one in Jurong and surely it is time we have a truly reptile park of
international standard, now that you can count with your two hands the number
of snakes in the Snake Temple.

The Botanical Garden, for example, needs a spruce-up.
There could even be a section where the many varieties of the pinang tree can
be planted, which the state is named after.

If silk is identified with Thailand
and cheongsam with Chinese cities, then Penang must be
made the home of batik and kebaya, synonymous with its peranakan heritage
image. It must be the place where tourists can come and buy these beautiful
fabrics and clothes.

But most of all, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad
Badawi, an anak Pulau Pinang, may want to consider restoring Penang's
free port status. Penang needs all the help it can get to
make the pearl shine again.