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Dr. A. Ghafar Ahmad

Paper presented at the 2nd. International Seminar on European Architecture and Town Planning Outside Europe (Dutch Period), Malacca 2-5 November 1998

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Dutch Square, Malacca



Heritage relates to the remains of the past, which arguably should be maintained for national pride and be cherished throughout the future generations. Urban conservation refers to the protection and preservation of the elements of urban heritage from being demolished or restored without proper and systematic planning, control and management measures. Examples of the elements of urban heritage are buildings of significant architectural values, historical sites and the uniqueness of the local cultures. Such elements are commonly found in many heritage cities. Apart from being national treasures, these heritage elements should be promoted as tourism products. This paper highlights the three heritage cities of Malaysia, namely Georgetown, Malacca and Kota Bharu, with an emphasis on their heritage buildings, historical sites and unique local cultures.

  tourist2.jpg (11638 bytes)   Tourists in Kota Bharu, Kelantan

It also discusses aspects of urban tourism, tourism and heritage marketing, urban conservation, elements of city image; and efforts carried out by the local authorities and the local community to accentuate their heritage products for the promotion of tourism.



Urban conservation is an important agenda to be considered in any development of urban areas especially the heritage cities. Heritage relates to the elements of the past, which arguably should be treasured and handed over to the next generations in good condition. In Malaysia, urban conservation is rapidly gaining momentum, particularly in cities with outstanding historical, architectural and cultural heritage. Examples of heritage cities in Malaysia include Georgetown, Malacca, Kota Bharu, Taiping, Kuala Lumpur and Kuching.

The growing tourism industry has highlighted the important roles of heritage cities as distinguished tourist destinations in Malaysia. As shown in Table 1, the number of tourist arrivals in the heritage cities of Georgetown, Malacca and Kota Bharu has increased steadily over the period of 1990 and 1997. In order to attract more tourists, these heritage cities have diversified their tourism products and cultural activities.

Table 1

Number of Tourist Arrivals in Georgetown, Malacca and Kota Bharu






Kota Bharu



































1 A decline in tourist arrivals possibly due to hazy conditions.

  1. Tourist arrivals during January-June 1996 only.
  2. not available

Source: Tourist Information Centre Kelantan (1996), Malacca Development Corporation (1997) and Tourism Development Division, Penang Development Corporation (1998)

This paper discusses the case studies of three heritage cities in Malaysia, namely Georgetown, Malacca and Kota Bharu. These cities were selected based on several factors, particularly their historical backgrounds as administrative centres and cultural melting pots. Georgetown and Malacca were parts of the British Straits Settlements during the 19th century. Whilst Kota Bharu was the trading and cultural centre under the protection of Siam before the British took over in 1909. Other aspects discussed in this paper include urban tourism, tourism and heritage marketing, urban conservation; and elements of city image.


The tourism industry in Malaysia has contributed significantly to national income in recent years. Tourism was the second highest contributor to national income during the period of 1994 -1997. In 1988, about 3 million tourists flocked to the country and the tourism industry had gained RM930 million.

  tourist3.jpg (13855 bytes) Trishaw ride in Malacca

Following the successful campaigns of Visit Malaysia Year in 1990 and 1994, tourist arrivals in Malaysia have increased double-fold to 7.2 million. Many states in the country have followed suit in the organisation of visiting campaigns. For example, Visit Terengganu Year 1997, Visit Kelantan Year 1998, Visit Penang Year 1999 and Visit Negeri Sembilan 1999. Tourist arrivals and potential contributions to the national income are projected positively over the next few years.

The Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism has identified 12 prime tourist destinations in Malaysia. They are Langkawi Island, Penang Island, Pangkor Island, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Bera Lake, National Park, Sarawak, Danum Valley, Mount Kinabalu, Kenyir Lake and Johor Bahru. These destinations ranged from eco-tourism to shopping haven. Attractive tourism products, reliable transportation system and affordable accommodation have made up the important assets of Malaysia’s tourism industry. The cities of Georgetown, Malacca and Kota Bharu have another point to their advantage, that of their historic buildings and areas. Robert Guy, the Managing Director of Pacific World (Singapore) supported the view that Malaysia should continue to promote its tourism products especially the multi-culture societies and rich heritage (Ibrahim, 1998, p.4).


Tourism marketing generally refers to a coordination system of tourism activities to determine tourist arrivals and to satisfy their expectations (Yoeti, 1988, p.31). Tourism marketing can be considered to be successful based upon the following criteria: (1) tourist arrivals, (2) tourist expenditures, (3) patterns of re-visiting, and (4) sound recommendations to families and friends. Tourism and heritage marketing is crucial for two reasons. Firstly, to satisfy the tourists’ needs and demands. Secondly, to sustain the tourism activities themselves as acceptable, manageable and profitable. Hence, an effective marketing system for heritage products is very important to relay clear information and vivid images to tourists. This should be carried out with creativity and imagination to capture the inherent values encapsulated in the tangible physical structures (Nuryanti, 1997, p.x).

In many cases, the intrinsic ties between conservation and tourism in the urban areas cannot be overemphasised. Many tourists visit heritage cities to encounter and experience the atypical ambience of their architecture, historic sites and local cultures. Conservation activities help ensue the preservation of such historic characters and traditional flavours for the benefit of tourism. Moreover, the conservation of heritage cities could bring economic returns to many sectors including travel agents, tour operators and owners of historic premises.

Many public entities and private bodies are involved in urban conservation for the development of tourism in Malaysia. This include the local authorities, Tourism Malaysia, State Tourism Departments, travel agents, mass media, banking community, corporate bodies, heritage trusts and the local community. In comparison with neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, Malaysia still lags behind as one of the favourable tourist destinations in the Southeast Asia region. Robert Guy explained that "Malaysia lacks focus on a central figure or identity. Thailand has its temples while Indonesia is famous for its Balinese culture but sadly, there does not appear to be a central identity for Malaysia…a central culture that identifies Malaysia will make the country more marketable" (Ibrahim, 1998, p.4). In this regard, it is crucial that Malaysian tourism and heritage products be promoted more rigorously at both local and international levels.


The reigning of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial powers in Malaysia for over 300 years have bared their marks significantly on the country’s settlements, trading and administrative patterns. After 40 years of independence, the remains of colonialism are much present in many aspects of the Malaysian life including town planning, law, education, military, culture and architecture. Interestingly, the distinctive colonial architectural styles in buildings and monuments have played a major role in the creation of heritage cities throughout Malaysia. The cities of Georgetown, Ipoh, Malacca, Taiping, Kuala Lumpur and Kuching are fine examples of heritage cities boasting of rich colonial architecture.

The term ‘conservation’ can be defined as preservation from demolition or from changes undertaken without appropriate planning, control and management. Conservation is usually associated with both the natural resources and the built environment. Although both aspects of conservation differed in terms of their approach and methodology, they nonetheless share the same objective: to ensure that the maximum life cycles of both the natural resources and built environment are maintained. Indeed, conservation is a continuous process in lieu of the interests of the future generations. This paper focuses on the conservation of the built environment including heritage cities and buildings; and the local cultures.

Effectively, urban conservation is a concept of urban planning and development in which unique historical, architectural and cultural values in the urban areas are accentuated. The concept of urban conservation was introduced in Malaysia in the early 1980’s and several cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Georgetown, Malacca and Kota Bharu have since adopted it. The urban conservation concept was implemented co-jointly by the local authorities, Federal and State governments, Department of Museum and Antiquity, heritage trusts and other professionals. It is imperative to perceive all efforts geared towards the conservation of heritage cities in a positive manner. This is because conservation is not only crucial for national development but to develop pride for their heritage in future generations (Ahmad, 1997, p. 62).



Urban conservation can be classified into three categories as follows:

  1. Building conservation
  2. Building conservation refers to the practice of keeping intact all buildings and properties of historical and architectural values. Building conservation is implemented through various phases including the listing and grading of historic building; evaluating building to be gazetted under the current laws; preparing proposals for building conservation and renovation; and implementing conservation projects under the supervision of the project steering committee.

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    A pedestrian mall with soft and hard landscape in Kota Bharu, Kelantan

  3. Area conservation
  4. Area conservation is defined as the preservation of one or several prime locations having elements, buildings and monuments of distinctive values and interests. Area conservation also includes the preservation of landscape elements and street furniture such as trees, water fountains, lamp posts, arches and gateways, park benches and signages. Area conservation should adopt current building control measures including fašade treatments (advertisement boards, colour scheme, building materials and additional structures); building height; design control; landscape and street furniture.

  5. Cultural conservation

Cultural conservation relates to the preservation and maintenance of the vitality and authenticity of the daily activities and cultural heritage of the local community including traditional lifestyles, arts, dance, music, crafts and costumes. Culture is effectively the source of identity and sovereignty of a nation (Sedyawati, E., 1997, p.25). The unique cultural heritage of a community expresses a specific characteristic of the country. So much so that it breeds and breathes life and colour onto the urban setting and atmosphere. Local community life in a heritage city heralded by traditional activities may well capture tourist attractions.

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Buluh Kubu Market, Kota Bharu, Kelantan

Trading in the Buluh Kubu Market in Kota Bharu and trishaw paddlers in Malacca are examples of traditional lifestyles which can entice tourists. Cultural conservation should take priority in the local authority’s agenda to ensure their vigour and continuity. The methods of listing and grading may be conducted to gauge the potentials of these cultural activities. Incentives and cultural development programmes may also be introduced to the public, including seminars and workshops on specific skills development, financial incentives to heritage traders, commercial spaces as well as the promotion and marketing traditional activities as tourism products.


Urban conservation programmes can be beneficial to many sectors of the society including the urban community, local authorities and tourists. Some of the major benefits of urban conservation are discussed as follows:

  1. Protection and appreciation of unique and historical national heritage

The practice of building conservation produces a systematic recording and documentation of data and information concerning historic buildings including built history, architectural factors and renovation works.

ii. Building the image and identity of heritage cities

One or a cluster of historic buildings in an area may portray visual evidence of the past. This factor may be strong enough to build a lucid image and identity of a heritage city. Historic buildings usually provide the necessary physical characteristics to the city, differentiating it from other regular cities. Georgetown and Malacca have a host of historic colonial buildings, which portray a distinct image and identity for these cities.

iii. Heritage values of local culture

The unique characteristics of the local community should be considered seriously in the process of urban conservation. Over the years, Malaysia’s multi-racial societies have developed an attractive culmination of cultures, which can lure foreign tourists. These cultural items and expressions include traditional arts and crafts, community fairs and bazaars, cottage industries, traditional games and religious ceremonies.

iv. Benefits to the tourism industry

Historic buildings, historical areas and unique community culture can be developed and promoted as tourism products to generate foreign exchange. Historic buildings being restored and converted into museums, art galleries, restaurants and tourist centres are common phenomena in many European countries. Renowned heritage cities such as York, Bath, Cambridge and Oxford in England; Paris in France; Venice, Pisa and Florence in Italy; and Amsterdam in Holland have all successfully conserved their buildings, areas and cultures for the purpose of tourism.


Every individual perceives the city differently. Thus, the image of the city is developed differently by varying individuals. The mental image of the city is associated with the individuals’ perceptions and interpretations of the situation and elements surrounding the city. The image of the city can be described through historical factors, building designs, landscape, community behaviours and activities.

Amos Rapoport (1977) in his book Human Aspects of Urban Form; Towards a Man-Environment Approach to Urban Form and Design asserted that an image is a mental picture of the external world formed from previous experiences. The mental picture helps an individual’s orientation towards the built environment. Kevin Lynch (1960) in his book The Image of the City argued that the image of the city is formed through prolonged observations of the city’s physical qualities. Mental images of objects and buildings are thus formed based on the ‘regularity’ factor. According to Lynch, the city consists of five physical elements: path, district, edge, node and landmark, all of which contribute to the formation of the city image.

Lynch’s five elements of the city image may well be extended to incorporate other critical elements of the city life such as history, architectural values and local culture. Syed Zainol Abidin Idid (1996) in his book Pemeliharaan Warisan Rupa Bandar (Conservation of the Heritage Townscape) noted that the townscape, which consists of building layouts and all the surrounding properties, could be combined to form a vivid image and identity for the city. The patterns of townscape are essentially the outward expressions of the local cultural. Hence, conservation effort is most crucial in warranting the perpetuity of the cultural values within an urban setting.



Urban conservation is a relatively new phenomenon in Malaysia. Hence, it is imperative that regulations and laws pertaining to urban conservation be considered seriously by the authorities concerned. There are presently six acts and enactments related to urban conservation in Malaysia. They are the Antiquities Act 1976 (Act 168); Town and Country Planning Act 1976 (Act 172); Federal Territory Act 1982 (Act 267); Urban Development Corporation Act 1971 (Act 46); the Malacca Enactment No. 6 1988; and the Johore Enactment No. 7 1988. These acts and enactments are largely focussed on the conservation of buildings, monuments and landscape per se. However, none or little provision is made on the important aspects of urban conservation.


The three heritage cities of Georgetown, Malacca and Kota Bharu are discussed consecutively to highlight their important roles in heritage and urban tourism.


Georgetown dates from 1789, when Captain Sir Francis Light established the island of Penang as a trading post for the British India Company. The settlement quickly lured people of all descents: Europeans, Chinese, Indians, Bugis, Arabs, Armenians, Persians, Siamese, Burmese and Sumatrans. Over the years, a consolidation of these cultural influences has brought about the manifestations of British colonial architecture in the island.

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Aerial view of Georgetown, Penang

Presently, Georgetown has designated six conservation areas, each with its distinctive building characteristics, and social and cultural ambience. The Penang Municipal Council has adopted the Planning and Conservation Guidelines to control the development of these conservation areas. Provisions are made for historic buildings of Categories I and II to be restored and converted to other uses without damaging the buildings’ original structure and materials. This is essential to maintain the historic buildings in their original forms for tourist appreciation.

Tourist attractions in the city of Georgetown include the State Museum, Art Gallery, Acheen Street Mosque, Khoo Kongsi, the Esplanade, St. George’s Church, Chong Fatt Tze Mansion and Syed Al-Attas Mansion.


The history of Malacca began in 1400, when Parameswara, the Indian prince from Palembang, Sumatra, Indonesia founded the city. The 16th through 18th centuries witnessed the development of Malacca as an important trading port and an administrative centre, much contested by the colonial powers of Portuguese, Dutch and British. In 1957, Malaya gained her independence and Malacca became part of the Federation of Malaysia.

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The Studhays Building at the Dutch Square, Malacca

In recognition of its rich historical pasts, Malacca was declared as the "Historical City" on 15th April 1989. The declaration has heightened the urban conservation efforts in the city of Malacca, particularly in the gazetted Old Malacca Zone. Important historical sites in the city of Malacca include the Dutch Plaza which houses the Stadhuys Building and the Christ Church, St. Paul’s Church, A Famosa Fort, St. Francis Xavier’s Church, Independence Memorial Building, several museums and the traditional mosques of Kampong Kling and Kampong Hulu.


Sultan Muhammad II founded the city of Kota Bharu on the banks of the Kelantan River in 1884. Kota Bharu and the Balai Besar Palace then flourished to become the administrative centre for Kelantan. Needing an ally in the face of the British attacks, Kelantan had to send annual gifts of gold to Siam as a token of their protection against the British. The signing of the Bangkok Treaty in 1909 however ended this practice. Instead, Kelantan and other Malay states of the east-coast of Malaysia were placed under the British governance until independence in 1957.

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A street converted into a pedestrian mall in Kota Bharu, Kelantan

Kota Bharu was declared as a "Kota Budaya"(Cultural City) by Sultan Ismail Petra on 25th July 1991. The declaration was made on the basis of two important aspects, namely the history of Kota Bharu and the unique local cultures. A cultural zone, which is located around the Balai Besar Palace, has been identified and gazetted by the Kota Bharu Municipal Council for urban conservation. Important tourist attractions in the city include the Balai Besar Palace, Jahar Palace, Batu Palace (Royal Museum), War Museum, Muhammadi State Mosque, Handicraft Village, Bank Pitis, Padang Merdeka (Independence Field), Tambatan Diraja (Royal Gate), Bank Negara and Buluh Kubu Bazaar. Other tourist attractions in Kota Bharu include the Batik and Songket Centre, Silverware Centre and the Buluh Kubu Market, where the majority of the sellers are female.

To date, Kota Bharu has received two prestigious awards. The National Land of Japan had selected Kota Bharu and 8 other cities around the world as "The City of Cultural Heritage". The recognition was given on the basis of local traditions, unique local cultures and tourist destinations. The Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism Malaysia has awarded Kelantan as the "Best Tourism City" in 1993. The selection was based upon factors of tourist arrivals, conservation activities and shopping facilities.


The heritage cities of Georgetown, Malacca and Kota Bharu are poised to witness rapid growth in their tourism industry. Prominent historical factors, notable architectural styles and unique local community cultures are the essential ingredients in making these cities as prime tourist destinations. The level of tourist satisfaction is an important yardstick to measure the potentials of the tourism industry. The three cities share six common themes in their development of heritage and urban tourism. Each theme is discussed as follows:

i. Historical and background factors

All the three cities have such engaging historical and background factors, which are marketable to tourists. Malacca and Georgetown both have very interesting and colourful history of their development, dating from the 16th century. Factors associated with the eras of colonialism, the influx of migrants of various origins and the culmination of cultures are useful information to present to tourists. Tourists are able to experience the history of these cities through exhibits and displays of heritage products, including historic buildings, sites and local cultures.

On the other hand, Kota Bharu portrays an interesting background of a Malay monarch system, heralded by solemn loyalty and honour for royalty. The Sultan by tradition had played a major role in the development of Kelantan, particularly Kota Bharu. The glorious history of the Kelantanese sultanate could provide interesting information for tourists.

ii. Local community cultures

The local cultures in effect are the manifestation of the historical and background influences on a local community. In Kota Bharu, the Kelantanese Malay culture dominates other cultures including the Chinese and Indians. The domination is nurtured through the Kelantanese Malays’ positive values and attitudes towards Islamic teachings, monarchy, economic livelihood, arts and literature. For instance, most Kelantanese women are competitive traders unlike their counterparts in other Malay states. Traditional leisure activities such as Mak Yong, Main Peteri, Dikir Barat and Wayang Kulit are also commonly found in the urban and rural areas of Kelantan.

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Cultural heritage of Kelantan: Traditional kite (Wau) making

On the contrary, the Chinese culture is more prominent in both Georgetown and Malacca. This is possibly because the majority of the city inhabitants are Chinese, while the other ethnic groups tend to live in the suburban areas. The Chinese lifestyles are portrayed in their building styles and facade treatments, and other social and religious activities in these cities.

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Goddess of Mercy Temple, Georgetown, Penang

iii. Diversified tourism products

All the three cities have an array of exciting tourism products, ranging from historic buildings and monuments, to traditional activities and handicrafts. Historic buildings and monuments have become the tourism centerpiece for the cities of Georgetown and Malacca. Several historic buildings in the vacinity have been converted into museum shops for tourist destinations. However, the local cultures and skills are more attractive as tourism products in Kota Bharu. These activities can be seen in Batik and Songket Centres, Silverware Centres and other traditional crafts centres.


iv. Zoning of conservation areas

The cities of Georgetown, Malacca and Kota Bharu have taken deliberate and conscious effort to designate their respective conservation zones. This is very important to highlight the image and identity of these heritage cities. Nonetheless, there are other areas of social and cultural activities in these cities that should also be gazetted under the conservation zones. For example, the modern Buluh Kubu Market in Kota Bharu should be gazetted under the Cultural Zone because of its unique trading activities run predominantly by women. The market scene has been featured as attractive tourist destinations in many travel publications including tourist magazines, brochures and postcards.

v. Pedestrianisation in heritage cities

The city of Malacca has been noted for designating the Old Malacca Zone as a pedestrian area. The pedestrian area has appropriate landscape elements and street furniture which blend well into the Old Malacca atmosphere. The pedestrian area is a good urban design element which facilitates heritage trails and walkabouts for tourists. It also allows for better tourist appreciation towards heritage products. Pedestrianisation of the Old Malacca Zone also protects the historic structures from the damaging effects of air pollution and constant vibrations caused by heavy traffic. Furthermore, pedestrianisation provides for commercial and leisure activities. A cultural bazaar located in a pedestrian area near Padang Pahlawan, Malacca is a good example of pedestrian areas in the heritage cities. However, apart from the regular sidewalks and pavements, Georgetown has yet to designate pedestrian areas in its inner city. Kota Bharu has recently provided pedestrian areas in the city but not in the cultural zone.

vi. Heritage and tourism management

All heritage and tourism activities should be managed effectively so as to enhance the development of the heritage cities. Important aspects of tourism management include product presentation, tourist information bulletin, financial management, and strategies of heritage and tourism marketing. Updates of heritage and tourism products should be provided effectively via internet websites, mass media and advertisement boards. Georgetown and Malacca have relatively more signages and information on heritage and tourism for tourists compared to that of Kota Bharu. For example, Georgetown and Malacca have established heritage trails (Jejak Warisan) sponsored by American Express. More advertisement boards, signages and bulletin boards should be placed in strategic areas around the heritage cities to catch the tourists’ attractions.


Heritage relates to urban conservation. Urban conservation is not only a process of building the image and identity for heritage cities but it also provides the missing link between the rich traditions of the pasts and the present-day living. This paper has outlined the important linkages between heritage conservation and urban tourism. Heritage products include buildings and monuments of distinctive historical and architectural values; heritage sites; as well as the unique local cultures. Arguably, these heritage products could be promoted and marketed successfully as tourism products. For example, the cities of Venice in Italy and Bath in United Kingdom have illustrated prominent showcases of national heritage as tourism products. Such experience should be emulated by heritage cities in Malaysia.

This paper has also highlighted the potentials of Georgetown, Malacca and Kota Bharu as important heritage cities on the Malaysian tourism map. Invaluable heritage elements of these cities should be preserved and conserved for the promotion of tourism. The conservation of heritage cities should be a continuous and dynamic process involving comprehensive planning and development of the townscape, architecture, historical sites, local cultures and the community livelihood. Urban conservation also considers building preservation and renovation including fašade treatments, building materials, height, functions, maintenance and interior renovation. City beautification strategies and the provision of community facilities are also a part of the heritage and urban tourism development.

In conclusions, urban conservation in the heritage cities of Georgetown, Malacca and Kota Bharu could well be improved with respect to the following factors:

  1. Introducing sufficient laws and design guidelines regarding heritage and urban conservation. Those involved in the development of the heritage cities including policy makers, town planners, urban designers and architects should have a greater understanding of heritage and urban tourism.
  2. Generating more public awareness on the importance of heritage and urban conservation for tourism. This could be channeled through exhibitions, seminars and hands-on workshops.
  3. Producing better development and action plans for the conservation areas and cultural zones.
  4. Providing grants, incentives and support for the owners of historic premises.


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