I would like to begin with a question about the ASEAN region. We had the opportunity to meet you for the first time during the ASEAN Tourism Forum in Kuching. The ASEAN region is the fastest-growing in the world. Do you think the economic strength matches tourism trends in the region?
I think over the last decade we have witnessed the high growth of ASEAN. ASEAN, not only from a tourism perspective but also from trade and commerce, exports many commodities to the rest of the world. For example palm oil, rubber, tin, timber, oil, etc. So I think Malaysia is also considered a major trading partner. This makes Malaysia the perfect gateway into ASEAN and that’s why our slogan is Malaysia truly Asia. We would like to see more trading partners visiting Malaysia during this Visit Malaysia Year 2014.
The Malaysian government has always had a very pro-business approach. What are the main political initiatives that are fostering and promoting a pro-business environment in the tourism sector?
I think that, for the last 10-20 years, one of the main reasons of our economic success is our political stability in comparison to other ASEAN countries. However we are quite stable not only politically but also in terms of natural disasters; we are lucky here in Malaysia that we don’t face earthquakes or typhoons or any other disasters. And we are a multi-ethnic society comprising Malay, Chinese, and Indian communities as well as the Kadazan from Sabah and Iban from Sarawak. This is Malaysia’s beautiful diversity that has to be showcased to everyone. For the Visit Malaysia Year 2014, Malaysia has allocated many projects and funds to promote Malaysia to the rest of the world. We have many cities that do their own festivals to showcase the beauties and peculiarities of each state.
What is the contribution of the tourism sector in terms of socio-economic development here in Malaysia?
Tourism is one of the main economic contributors and it accounts for 12.5% of Malaysia’s GDP. I think tourism has been one of the main focuses; the Visit Malaysia 2014 Year stimulates our economy despite a slowdown in the manufacturing sector, especially because of the US and European economies, which have slightly affected Malaysia’s economy. That’s why we will focus on tourism for the next couple of years. We are committed to the cause and organising all sorts of activities to showcase our tourism potential in Malaysia, especially in terms of eco-tourism, cultural activity, and local gastronomy. Malaysia ranks in the top-three best places to retire and of course one of the best places to retire in Malaysia is Penang. Japanese, Australians and British people represent the largest communities but we are experiencing increasing trends also from other parts of Europe that choose Penang as the place to spend their retirement.
What is so unique about Penang?
Well, Penang is renowned to be “the Pearl of the Orient”. There is so much culture to be showcased here and a large contribution is due to the UK. I think the British appreciated Penang, and indeed, out of many cities in the region, they stopped in Penang and established here one of the oldest free ports of Asia. Penang, therefore, represented for decades the trading centre between the West and the East. So, already over 200 years ago, Penang was established as an international port. That’s why we are often referred to as “the Pearl of the Orient”. And this is not only for commercial reasons, but also for tourism. This trend started when the British established themselves here and developed the island by bringing the West to meet with the Eastern culture. And when they built the port all the Chinese, Indians, and Indonesians flocked to Penang. This is also why we are blessed with such a cultural and ethnic diversity that creates a sort of cosmopolitan social life and it’s very peculiar about Penang.
MICE look like an enormous business opportunity for Penang. Could you please give us more details about the International Convention and Exhibition Centre project?
I think it’s important to consider the background of this opportunity, which lies in the fact that we have been nurturing traditional cultures in Penang. In 2008 George Town was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it became famous for our living culture and heritage. It was important that they valued the heritage, beauty, and culture here. And starting from that, Penang has become a glory again and has regained the shine of the Pearl of the Orient. Now you can see many international media, TV stations, coming to Penang to shoot movies, to understand Penang’s multi-ethnic culture. We are proud of our Street of Harmony, named like that because of the presence of a Christian church, a Chinese temple, a Muslim mosque just 50 meters away, and opposite the Muslim mosque we have the Hindu temple. Penang is a well-known place for maintaining peace and harmony for all. We are proud of our multi-cultural community living together in the city. That’s why, starting from our heritage sites, we feel that Penang can offer many things besides the beautiful hills and beaches. With this background and perfect mix of nature and culture, we think that we should focus on MICE, because people coming for conferences, training, and meetings can enjoy the peculiarities of the different gastronomies in Penang. Everything is happening just here in Penang so you do not have to go to many places.
We are already building the Subterranean Penang International Convention and Exhibition Centre (SPICE) that will be concluded by 2016. SPICE can cater for around 10,000 people. And by 2019 we are planning to build another, the Penang Waterfront Convention Centre.
How are you keeping up with the booming trend in tourism?
So after getting the UNESCO Status we’ve seen a sudden influx of tourists from all over the world coming to Penang. From 2009 onward all our hotels are achieving almost high occupancy rates for many months throughout the year, which we have never seen before. For example, during the festive seasons easily most of the hotels are achieving 100% full occupancy rate, or 95%. During Chinese New Year, most of the hotels get 100% full occupancy rates.
When tourists look at the map and pick a place, most of the time they look at two main factors: safety and medical assistance. How safe is Penang and how would you describe the medical infrastructure here?
I think that even compared to other states of Malaysia, Penang shows the highest decrease in the number of crimes in the last two years, and historically we have always had the lowest crime rate. That’s why Penang is a place where a lot of people retire. Most people like to stay in Penang, because also the cost of living is low. Property prices here are low compared to other places like Singapore, Hong Kong, or Macau, and food is accessible on any corner, it is also inexpensive and very good. We are receiving awards and recognition by the ECA International. We ranked number eight as the most liveable and workable city in Asia for two consecutive years: 2010 and 2011. We were also chosen by Yahoo.com in 2010 to be in the top-ten list of islands you must visit before you die. CNNgo picked Penang’s laksa to be at number 7 out of the top 50 best delicacies in the world. Penang’s laksa is the only food from Malaysia ranked. And we have also been chosen again by CNNgo in the top-ten for the best street food in Asia along with Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
With regards to medical infrastructure we have been promoting medical tourism because of our high quality services and low cost medical treatment. Penang’s medical tourism contributes 60% of the total healthcare revenue of Malaysia. We have seven international standard hospitals equipped with the latest technology which coupled with the low cost of services compared to Western countries make Penang very competitive.
Will 16th November 2014 be a major milestone in the history of Penang? Are you going to break the Guinness World Record with the bridge marathon?
For the last three years we have been the number one in Malaysia’s Book of Records for number of runners in marathons: from 28,000 in 2011, the number increased to 34,000 runners in 2012, then last year it increased to 47,000 and again this was a Malaysian record. We beat ourselves every year! We are aiming for a new record this year, since we have just completed a new bridge that is 24 km long, where we can run across and come back, for this 42-km Penang Bridge Marathon. We hope to achieve a Guinness World Record, because so far no other country is organising a Marathon on a bridge which is longer than the Penang Second Bridge. Last year there were 47,000 runners and everyone was eager to participate in this new Second Bridge Marathon on 16th November 2014. We are expecting to reach almost 60,000 runners this year.
Moving along and focusing more on the relations between Malaysia and the UK. I’ve read one of your interviews where you said that “environmental conservation has become an increasingly pressing issue that needs to be addressed in any business or industry around the world”. British people love eco-tourism. What are the main activities in terms of eco-tourism that you can do here in Penang?
I think we are very lucky again that on the island we have many places like jungles perfect for eco-tourism. For example, at the North of the island we have the National Park with a big jungle and Monkey Beach, or Pantai Kerachut with a canopy walkway inside. Inside this National Park we have over 1800 species of flora and fauna, so you can see a lot of species of birds and other animals over there. It’s a very nice place. And besides that, we have the top spot tourist destination, Penang Hill that you can reach by train in just less than 10 minutes. These are I would say, the best places for ecotourism on the island.
Could you please share your thoughts about the Malaysia My Second Home program that the government has been promoting so far?
I dare say that on Penang island, over the last 15 years those who have invested in property have not lost money, because every year the value of property on the island increases. And after the UNESCO Status it suddenly doubled for the all British houses and historical houses in George Town, but I think the property prices at the moment in Penang, compared to Singapore or Hong Kong, are still two or three times cheaper. So the opportunity to invest in Penang for many- in line with Malaysia My Second Home, is pretty good. There are 300,000 British nationals traveling every year to Malaysia. I’m pretty sure that this year there will be even more than that. 16,500 British nationals live and work currently in Malaysia. I would invite more British nationals to come here and have a peaceful stay, enjoy the quality of medical treatment, or move here and turn your retirement into a business opportunity with the soaring prices in real estate.
You’re clearly very passionate about your job and you are an incredible ambassador not only for Penang but also for Malaysia as a whole. Could you please share your last message to the readers of the Daily Telegraph in order to encourage them to come and visit Malaysia?
We welcome all tourists from all over the world that must see Malaysia in conjunction with the Visit Malaysia Year. Especially after landing and experiencing our capital, Kuala Lumpur, they must come and stopover in Penang to enjoy the best food in Malaysia. Penang has also been selected by The Guardian in top-ten cities that you must visit in 2014. We are the only place from Asia, being selected by The Guardian in this list. The Guardian also listed us in their calendar book for our street art, ranking us number 15. Again, the only place in the region. So, we welcome everyone, especially our old traditional partners from Britain to visit Penang again.