GEORGE TOWN, Malaysia — On any given weekend, a 15-meter-long queue of international tourists materializes at the upper corner of Armenian Street, an atmospheric road packed with tourist shops and cafes at the heart of George Town, capital of Malaysia’s Penang State.
Selfie-stick-toting visitors wait patiently to snare shots next to George Town’s most iconic piece of street art, “Two Kids on a Bicycle,” a life-size mural showing two children riding a bicycle into the wall. Meanwhile, local motorists curse the artwork — and the tourists — for contributing to the traffic gridlock that mars the area.
The mural, voted one of the world’s best graffiti in a 2013 poll by the Guardian, a U.K. newspaper, was created in 2012 by Ernest Zacharevic, a Lithuanian artist, as part of that year’s George Town Festival — a month-long carnival of international art that celebrates the city’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site on July 7, 2008.
A decade on from the listing, murals such as Zacharevic’s have led to a boom in street art that has helped to make George Town one of Southeast Asia’s coolest creative locations. But the city’s emergence as an open-air street art museum has also shifted its focus from the multiethnic cultural heritage and colonial architecture that led to the listing toward a short-term fixation with easy tourist dollars.
“It’s interesting how Penang has become one of the biggest open-air art galleries in the world, but how do you control this? How to decide what stuff should really go on the wall?” said Joe Sidek, director of the George Town Festival, who is responsible for helping to kick-start the street art mania. “The sad thing is that people don’t come to see the beautiful architecture, peoples and food of Penang any longer,” Sidek said. “The relevant authorities should really look at a master plan for tourism, and not just at increasing the numbers.”
In 2017, Penang Airport, the closest to George Town, registered 7.2 million tourist arrivals, up from 6.7 million in 2016. “But you want better quality tourists,” said Sidek. “Penang is very sensitive, [George Town is] a small city with small lanes that can’t sustain the current number of tourist buses.”
Penang Global Tourism, the state tourism bureau, did not respond to questions from the Nikkei Asian Review. However, former Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, now Malaysia’s finance minister, claims that the development of the state has been a great success. “From being the dirtiest state in the country, we are now one of the cleanest cities not only in Malaysia but also in ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations],” Lim says on his personal website.
Read Marco Ferrarese’s full article on Nikkei Asian Review.
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