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Penang’s Tourism Formula

by Su Aziz

Trainer of WIEF Young Fellows 2019, former managing director of Penang Global Tourism and an intrepid tourist herself, Ooi Geok Ling, gives a candid interview on what makes tourism in Penang tick.

Penang started off as an exotic tropical island after World War II. Images of Penang back then were of swaying coconut trees and bathers in the sea. The decline in the quality of the beaches and coastal water resulted in the decline of Penang as an island destination in the 90’s.

In the past decade, however, it went through a revival – thanks to its famous street food and UNESCO World Heritage Site inscription. Multitudes of hawker food hugely contribute to the scents and sights of the island located in the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia. In fact, its street food status rivals the likes of Singapore and Bangkok in both taste as well as price. Thus, the relatively small but no less prosperous island attracts over six million local and international tourists per year in the last five years.

So, what is Penang’s tourism formula? Former managing director of Penang Global Tourism (PGT), which is Penang State Government’s global tourism arm, Ooi Geok Ling shares insights from her years of experience helming the organisation and being knee-deep in the tourism industry. Bursting with energy and spilling with marketing ideas, 55-year old Geok Ling describes herself as ‘still impatient but less than before. I still love the outdoors although degenerating spinal discs is painfully annoying. I’m indulging more in things I love instead of being ruled by work. I’m also eating more healthily. In short, I’m happy.’ Born and bred in Penang, Geok Ling currently runs her own consultancy firm and will be one of the main trainers for the Penang edition of the WIEF Young Fellows 2019 (YF2019) in November.

Here, she tells more prior to the event.

What about the tourism industry that excited you?
Tangentially, I’m still in the tourism industry. I’ve had consultancy work with a tour operator and hotels. Also, I co-founded WiT INDIE, which is a platform to empower independents, hotels, tour operators and creatives by embracing new technologies.

I love to travel. I started travelling at a relatively young age. I took the train to Bangkok and a cheap van to Ko Samui while I was a student in Universiti Sains Malaysia. Working in tourism puts me on the other side. I had been marketing specialised construction materials and in PGT, I had to market my beloved state. And with a small budget, there was no room for errors. What could be more exciting?
[Editor’s note: In fact, Geok Ling had just returned from a 2-week cycling trip in Italy before tackling this interview.]

What made Penang’s tourism industry boom?
I joined PGT in October 2009 and was there for five full years. I got into the tourism industry when I joined PGT. A year before that, Penang had just been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site which gave the island’s tourism industry a much needed boost.

What is the future of Penang’s tourism industry?
I think the future depends on the tenacity and creativity of the people as well as the private sector. We’re an island destination famed not for its island characteristics. Visitors come for the city of George Town and Penang street food. But they go to another island to chill. I remember being told by China Airlines how most of their in-bound passengers from Taiwan ended up in Langkawi (another Malaysian island in the north of Penang).

The challenges of Penang’s tourism industry are no different from that faced by any other economy that heavily depends on tourism. The challenges are varied and many, yet they’re far from being solved. Being focused only on increasing the number of tourists isn’t a strategy towards sustainability.

What changes would you like to see in Penang’s tourism industry?
In 2011, when we launched PGT’s first advertising campaign in Singapore, that was a proud moment for me. Then, I read comments on PGT’s social media platforms from Penangites living in Singapore who had seen the campaign and how they had never felt so proud of Penang. Also, how it had made them miss home. I wanted the campaign to touch hearts and it did.

What I’m trying to say is, I’d like for visitors who visit Penang, to come here and be moved as well as touched by our island, and they’ll take something home that’ll always remain in their hearts. Not only because Penang’s a [relatively] cheap destination.

Ooi Geok Ling

What are your three tips to expand a tourism industry?
One, do not aim for purely numbers (of visitors). Two, be very good if not the best, and not be a cheap destination. Lastly, embrace technology cleverly and quickly.

What can YF2019 participants expect from you during your session in Penang?
Honesty and humour!

WIEF Foundation’s Young Fellows 2019 will be happening in George Town, Penang, Malaysia on 11-14 November. Its theme this year is Embracing the Future of Smart Tourism. To register as a participant, visit this link.

Read more on smart tourism here.

30 Sep 2019
Last modified: 29 Jun 2022
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