Protecting the past benefits Adelaide’s culture tourism future

City of Adelaide Lord Mayor, Martin Haese, thinks Adelaide can learn from the heritage tourism experience of George Town, Malaysia.

During a one-day whistle-stop tour of Malaysia in July, I was surprised to encounter a familiar face in the middle of Penang’s historic capital city of George Town. A statue of a British colonial official in the city bears a startling similarity to the City of Adelaide’s iconic Surveyor General, Colonel William Light.

The statue is of William’s father, Captain Sir Francis Light, but was modelled after his son as there were no pictures of Francis at the time of his death.

George Town became a Sister City of Adelaide 45 years ago but the opportunities for  mutual learning continue to this day. I was excited during my visit to see how Penang has got it so right when it comes to cultural tourism, particularly heritage tourism.

Mayor Yew Tung Seang of Penang and Lord Mayor Martin Haese of Adelaide

As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, George Town’s heritage tourism industry is Penang’s second largest export. A compact, walkable city, it features more than 5000 protected and, in many cases, meticulously restored heritage buildings. It is also home to many restaurants, cafes, hotels and vibrant public arts spaces. These are qualities that Adelaide also shares however the way George Town ties these cultural experiences together is what makes it such an enviable tourist destination.

Our character buildings help to define us as a city and tell the story of what makes Adelaide ‘Adelaide’. Earlier this year we were visited by renowned heritage economist Donovan Rypkema, who after some days in Adelaide, informed me that he had never been to a city anywhere in the world with such rich heritage credentials and so much untapped potential for its promotion.

By comparison, New York City receives a US$8 billion windfall every year from heritage tourists alone. Even in other cities where tourism may not be a key attractor, in states such as Arkansas, cultural and heritage tourists are likely to spend 30 per cent more than other tourists visiting the region. It’s also apparent that these tourists only spend a small amount on the heritage attraction itself; the bulk of the money goes to local cafes, shops and hotels and is spread right through the wider economy.


So what can we learn from Penang’s experience that can be applied in Adelaide?

First we need to preserve, protect and enhance the heritage buildings we already have. My advocacy for heritage buildings is well documented but it stands to reason that building owners need to ensure they are maintaining, preserving and adaptively re-using their buildings. The City of Adelaide’s Heritage Incentives Scheme and the recently announced expansion to the State Heritage Grants will help with this.In addition, lighting, public art and attention to surrounds such as landscaping can also help. This is done to great effect in Penang with the ‘Marking George Town’ scheme; a public art trail which features caricatures that visually tell the history of the streets and the stories of local communities in a humorous way. I saw lots of this public art when I went on a cycling tour of George Town with the Mayor of Penang, Yew Tung Seang.

The promotion, marketing and linking of heritage sites is the final piece of the puzzle. Marking George Town does this to great effect. Chair of our State Heritage Commission, Keith Conlon, has already done this with his tours of the grand buildings of Sir Edmund Wright but there are many more stories to tell.


Technology such as podcasts, apps, virtual reality and augmented reality can provide additional tools to encourage people to take the journey.

I support the State Government’s decision to develop a heritage tourism industry strategy for South Australia and look forward to working with Minister David Spiers. If Donovan Rypkema is right, it could mean terrific things for the local economy.

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