What you need to know about the Replacement Penang Hill Special Area Plan 2020

As a tourism landmark, the hill is always susceptible to overcrowding

water catchement area and forests in Penang
Lush forests cover the hilly terrain between Bukit Laksamana and Western Hill, divided by a deep valley - Photo: Penang Hills Watch

Penang Hill, the state’s crowning jewel, is a top tourism destination rich in colonial history, an exquisite green lung with high biodiversity including some endemic species, and an important water catchment area.

Such a precious asset necessitates a detailed management plan that is sensitive to its ecological functions, its historic prominence and its role as a tourist attraction. These are addressed in the Replacement Penang Hill Special Area Plan 2020 (SAP 2020).

The SAP 2020 envisions “Transforming Penang Hill as a High Quality Regional Destination” that is supported by four core thrusts:

  • Environmental sustainability and biodiversity
  • Management of natural and human resources
  • Conservation and preservation of heritage assets
  • Educational tourism.

These are in turn supported by six key strategies and 44 initiatives, the latter categorised under control, physical, programme and research-based projects to be carried out in three phases between 2020-2025 and beyond.

The SAP 2020 comes in two volumes.

  • Volume 1 – Strategic Direction and Initiatives – details purpose, vision and objective; strategies and initiatives; and development proposals to be completed in phase
  • Volume 2 – Development Controls – identifies the eight development zones within the gazetted area; management and implementation strategies; as well as a comprehensive disaster risk reduction and management plan

The Plan replaces the Penang Hill SAP 2016, and the Bukit Bendera Local Plan 1999.

How is the SAP 2020 different?

An increase of coverage area is the key difference of SAP 2020 – from 468.38 hectares (Penang Hill SAP 2016) to 742.51 hectares.

The land is to be divided into eight distinct zones that will also include the proposed Unesco Man and the Biosphere Programme. The zones are: main protection zone, preservation zone, conservation zone, main activity zone, main heritage tourism zone, controlled heritage tourism zone, residential zone, and railway reserve zone.

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Also provided are the Penang Hill cable car proposal and the proposed development plans for the summit centre; and an assessment of the probability of switching from the current technique of calculating carrying capacity based on a fixed “magic number” (Penang Hill SAP 2016) to the “limits of acceptable change” methodology. More pertinently, a management plan for pandemics is also included.

Key highlights

Educational tourism, as with the conservation and preservation of heritage assets, features strongly in the SAP 2020. There is a proposal to convert, among others, the Convalescent and Fernhill bungalows into boutique hotels and restaurants, and as field research stations. The category one heritage building, Bel Retiro, which until now has barred public entry, will be opened to a certain capacity for visitors. These endeavours are to breathe new life into the hill’s rich built heritage.

A heritage trail-themed walk is to be introduced as well, stretching across the length of Crag Hotel to Southview and offering visitors the opportunity to appreciate the 10 heritage structures dotting the hilltop path.

Another key element under the educational tourism umbrella is the suggestion to identify and highlight important hill trails, with a key focus on the Moniot Trail. This initiative will see the placing of interpretive signs and QR codes along the routes providing access to information about the hill’s biodiversity. To complement the project is the heritage tree programme aimed at the protection and appreciation of the hill’s flora such as the maingaya malayana and dacrydium elatum.

Alongside this, the disaster risk reduction and management plan, a multi-pronged strategy with detailed guidelines, serves to coordinate responses to future natural disasters and pandemics.

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Addressing concerns

As a tourism landmark, the hill is always susceptible to overcrowding. It is debated that the proposed RM300m Penang Hill cable car project will exacerbate its environmental impact should two modes of mass transport up the hill – the other being the funicular train – operate simultaneously. Its financial feasibility is also greatly questioned, as are its projected revenues, given the lessons taught by Covid-19.

A second look is likewise needed at the redevelopment proposals for the summit centre, which includes a four-storey Astaka Penang Hill (Cliff Café), an overhead bridge across Summit Road from the Astaka, and a large flagstaff close to Bel Retiro. The growing fear is that all these will disrupt and destroy the overall ambience, charm and historic vista of the summit centre.

Adding to the disruption will be the increase in vehicular traffic along Summit Road, which in recent years has been evident. The once-quiet path now bustles with buggies and jeeps plying the route, and at some speed. To pre-empt a worsening of this situation, the SAP 2020 should include a clear traffic management plan.

Lastly, public demand has been growing for a holistic look at the agricultural practices on the slopes of Penang Hill. The issue of encroachment into water catchment and forested areas for agriculture is explicitly identified in the SAP 2020. But what is lacking is an action plan to handle the matter, eg starting with the mapping out of present agricultural areas on the hill, both legal and illegal; followed by the demarcating of river buffer zones in water catchment areas; the controlling of chemical fertiliser and pesticide usage; and the incentivising of farmers to switch from annual crops to tree-shaded crops to help prevent soil erosion on slopes.

READ MORE:  What you need to know about the draft Penang Hill special area plan

*The views above are based on the draft Replacement Penang Hill Special Area Plan 2020.

Rexy Prakash Chacko is an electronic engineer by profession and a nature lover by passion. While he spends his weekdays earning a living at the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone, his weekends are spent reflecting and recharging on the green hills of Penang.

Source: Penang Monthly

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