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  • Subject area(s): Hospitality
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  • Published on: 15th October 2019
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Tourism is seen as a major economic element for many cities around the world. Olympic city bids are put forward not for the short-term economic benefit the games will bring, but primarily for the worldwide recognition that hosting the games will bring to the successful country and city. Whilst the short-term tourism revenue from the games are an immediate benefit to the local economy, this is far outweighed by the cost of building the infrastructure and venues necessary to host the games. It is the long-term global recognition of the successful city that produces decades of tourism related benefits and local as well as national revenue streams.  UNESCO heritage cities work the same way. Georgetown, a city on the Island of Penang, Malaysia first put forward their city as a World Heritage Site (WHS) in 1995 and was placed on the wait-list until they met the standards of UNESCO (Chai, 2011). Since it became a WHS in 2008, hundreds of thousands of visitors have travelled to the small island because they want to experience the deep-rooted Asian culture that the city is known for and to explore and experience Asia as it once was (Chai, 2011). UNESCO tourists tend to visit multiple World Heritage designated Cities and Georgetown has become an important cultural destination for those interested in early Asian society (Nair & Thomas, 2013). Tourism is primarily seen as a benefit but in some cases, it can really damage the culture and integral values for a town such as Georgetown and governance needs to step in to save it.

Some people could argue that the change in infrastructure could be beneficial for a town as it could mean more jobs for the locals and an overall higher standard of living as the money goes back into the local economy. Because of the governments lack of interest in maintaining the culture in Georgetown, the opposite is happening. It is interesting to look deeper into the impact that becoming a popular destination has had on Georgetown as many travellers do not fully comprehend the consequences that their visit has on the local population. Tourism obviously positively benefits the local economy but there are negative impacts to it as well. There are concerns that the popularity of Georgetown as a WHS is causing it to slowly drift away from the unique cultural characteristics that made it a WHS in the first place. There is serious concern that if this continues Georgetown may lose its WHS designation based on the values that UNESCO puts out (Mok, 2016). WHS must only change their infrastructure “in such a way that economic, social and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity” (Pedersen, 2016).  It is important to address this situation urgently because urbanization is somehow being prioritized over culture, as greed is now fueling the demolition of the heritage buildings and streets to allow development of multiple trendy coffee shops, boutique hotels, and roads to facilitate more and more tourists (Nair & Thomas, 2013). There needs to be a better system in place to protect WHS as Georgetown is not the only settlement facing this problem. It is time for both tourists and municipal as well as Federal governments to take a stand and protect what remains of their heritage. Tourism in Georgetown has greatly increased the income for local land and property owners, but it is also displacing the traders and local artists who are being forcibly evicted from the row houses (known as shop lots as they make their living on the ground floor and live on the upper levels) that they have occupied for hundreds of years (Mok, 2016). The evictions that are currently taking place are changing the very face of Georgetown and turning it into a congested, trendy, boutique style area that is completely and irreversibly altered from how it was prior to being awarded WHS status.

Over recent years, many of the senior residents, who are multi-generational shoe-makers, weaving masters and builders have had to give up their traditional jobs to make way for the growing tourism industry (Mok, 2016). A man by the name of Teong Han Yen told his story about how his family-run shop is in danger of closing because of the significant hike in rental space prices (Mok, 2016). He reminisces about the days where his father was easily able to pay the relatively low rental price and that the shop was always busy with local buyers (Mok, 2016). Since the big tourism boom, many locals have moved out of the small town and into larger cities as they can see that Georgetown is changing into a settlement that is almost foreign to them. It is as if the local government is deliberately trying to push out those who cannot afford to pay the price in the name of development as the prices are not just small hikes, but 200 – 300% increases in monthly rental fees (Mok, 2016). One heritage guide in Georgetown noticed early on that the local shop lots were turning into “hotels, cafes, even museums” and that they “are losing the very thing that got [them] listed [as a WHS] in the first place” (Sawlani, 2016). As soon as Georgetown become a WHS, the municipal government has taken steps to ensure that they take full advantage of the increase in revenues that this opportunity produced. While this is completely understandable, it is incredibly disheartening to hear about these stories as it means that the residents of Georgetown must sacrifice their livelihoods, which they have been operating for several generations, just so that tourists can enjoy five-star restaurants, brand name stores, and internationally known coffee shops. There needs to be a balance between the economic and social aspects of Georgetown in order to make sure that local residents and the culture is not adversely affected to the degree that it has been.

Tourism in Georgetown has grown exponentially since it became a WHS in 2008 (Nair & Thomas, 2013). I have visited Georgetown on two occasions, both after 2008 whereas my mother and father both visited prior to its designation as a WHS. When we last visited in 2014, I remember my mother telling my aunt that she was surprised to see the changes in Georgetown. There were a lot less rickshaws and bike-taxis on the roads as there is now serious congestion due to the large increase in car traffic. Prior to the WHS designation cars were a rare sight in Georgetown as they were unaffordable and were in contradiction to Georgetown’s old and rich culture. During my visit I noticed the small family shops and locally run restaurants were closed shut with ‘for lease’ signs marked on the metal bars. This is proof that tourism can in fact be harmful, especially when the bases of values and culture are not being paid any attention. Tourists themselves are not to blame as it is the government that is trying to change Georgetown into something that it is not (Nair & Thomas, 2013). To date, UNESCO has never taken away the privilege of having a WHS title from any city but there has been recent speculation that unless changes are made, this could happen to Georgetown (Pedersen, 2016).

Most growing cities around the world are dealing with an identity crisis of their own. Governments are trying to maintain the original values and culture while also attempting to increase revenues and modernize infrastructure. Victoria, for example, has laws on the maximum heights of new buildings as they want to keep the feeling of a small city. Georgetown has been allowed to grow free of governmental interference as their economy continues bringing in tourists through UNESCO’s WHS status. It is vital that regulations be set in place by the federal and local Governments that maintain and encourage, through grants and tax incentives, the local cultural components of this WHS while also allowing these unique and culturally significant businesses to flourish. This approach will be a win-win as the locals can grow their businesses, not be evicted from them. Governments will enjoy additional income and a portion of the increase in revenues should be funnelled towards a heritage fund to renovate instead of demolishing older culturally significant structures and rental preference given to local craftspeople and family owned businesses. In short, culture and heritage should always be given priority over the interests of the government, even at the expense of possible higher income. Georgetown is evidence that tourism, if not handled properly, is not the best and only option for a city to thrive whether it be culturally or economically.

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