Penang tourism’s dilemma: To build or retain its UNESCO status


Penang’s future as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is under attack from property developers who see selling more hotel rooms as the future in the tourism industry. It is believed four hotel projects within the heritage core zone and buffer zone are now under the scrutiny of UNESCO for contravening height restrictions.

UNESCO has confirmed it will be sending a fact-finding mission “early next month” to meet authorities in Malaysia to resolve the matter should it decide to revoke George Town’s listing as a World Heritage Site.

The four property developers whose development sites are within the George Town enclave approved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site claim they now have a right to be compensated by the authorities as approvals were given prior to its site listing on July 7, 2008.

However, after the listing by UNESCO the 18m/ five-storey height restrictions came into effect.

Together with Malacca, UNESCO has proclaimed George Town a historic site of The Straits of Malacca as it “constitutes a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia. Featuring residential and commercial buildings, George Town represents the British era from the end of the 18th century.”

It is believed there were “inconsistent and contradictory” statements given to UNESCO as part of Penang’s listing process, according to Ooi Chun Aun, an aide to Penang’s chief minister. He has now proposed holding an “official domestic inquiry” to extricate itself from being at the end of a legal lawsuit by four property developers who claim they have been prevented from continuing with their hotel building projects because of height restrictions, under terms of its World Heritage Site ruling.

“It will help all parties get their facts right before the next visit by UNESCO assessors,” Ooi said. “The inquiry will facilitate the retrieval of old files and testimony from previous government which approved three of the projects.”

Criteria (1V) of UNESCO’s ruling on heritage sites states: “the properties have retained the authenticity in accordance with conservation guides and principles.”

Richard Engelhardt, UNESCO regional advisor for Asia Pacific, said Penang must adhere to the restriction on the height of buildings within the core and buffer zone contained in the dossier submitted to UNESCO.

“Penang had agreed to certain parameters on the heritage profile of buildings and should subscribe to the guidelines specified for the zones. Penang’s joint-listing with Malacca can be revoked by not conforming to what was submitted in the dossier”

Should the authorities fail in its defense, “the ratepayers” would have to bear all costs deemed payable by the courts, Ooi added.

Taking a tough stand on the issue, Lim Guan Eng said a “final” decision on the fate of the four projects will be made in June. “If one of the projects have to go, so would the rest.”