Heritage Conservation for Tourism in Malaysia – Is it Possible?
The Malaysian cities of Melaka and George Town have developed over the last 500 years through trading and cultural exchanges between the East and West in the Straits of Malacca. Asian and European influences have given these cities a very specific multicultural heritage that is both tangible and intangible. Melaka’s government buildings, churches, squares and fortifications represent history from the early Malay sultanate (15th century) and the Portuguese and Dutch periods (16th century). George Town’s residential and commercial buildings represent its British era (18th century). These two cities along the Straits constitute a physical and cultural landscape unparalleled anywhere else in East and Southeast Asia. To signify their importance, the Malaysian government declared Melaka a historical city in 1989. Nine years later in 2008, the cities of Melaka and George Town were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List as the Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca.
Melaka’s vision for heritage conservation is to protect the unique cultural heritage resources of Melaka Historic City by fostering a healthy collaboration among all stakeholders in developing a sustainable tourism industry, and to consolidate cultural heritage tourism as the unique selling proposition for the three heritage districts in Melaka. The idea is that tourism would be a bonus by-product to conservation efforts where visitors are invited to ‘share’ the site with local communities, who can therefore enjoy improved facilities. Some involved groups worry about the danger of conservation being done primarily for tourism. One particular fear is that conservation for tourism would create ‘theme-park’ style neighbourhoods which could influence the existing communities in these areas. This fear arises in part from the historical conservation of Singapore’s Chinatown, which many critics consider a Disneyfication of the historical neighbourhood.
Another layer of the conservation for tourism approach raises some concerns; Melaka and George Town are represented as ‘living heritage cities.’ This means that both the tangible and intangible elements of the heritage neighbourhoods are to be conserved. How do you conserve a heritage site and promote its cultural heritage while maintaining (and hopefully improving) the residents’ current lifestyle and keeping it open for viewing by tourists? I visited Melaka in June 2009, and my personal observation was that this is a difficult task. I applaud the Malaysian and local governments for their work and dedication to conserving an important part of local history, and agree that improvements to infrastructure and facilities do benefit the local population. However, it felt as if some of the ‘real life’ of the place was missing. Yet, when I did stumble upon some genuine Melakan life, the experience felt a little too voyeuristic, or as if it had been put on display for tourists… like me.