A non-governmental organisation has raised concerns over proposed developments for the Penang Hill following the unveiling of the hill's special area plan (SAP) last week.
Chant, or Citizens Awareness Chant Group, supports the proposed cable car project to boost tourism, but cautioned that future developments should not transform the hill into a new "Disneyland" and alter its natural beauty.
"We question whether this cable car project proposed for the hill is just the beginning. What will come next? An integrated resort, Disneyland or another theme park?" asked Chant advisor Yan Lee yesterday.
Lee asked if the plan was for eco-tourism or for something else of an even larger scale, and pointed out that developers had long been eyeing the hill for development.
According to Lee, big developers from Kuala Lumpur and their companies collectively own hundreds of acres of land on the hill.
"What do you all think the developers' plans are for their land? What do you all think they have been constantly lobbying the Penang State government for?" he questioned.
Last Thursday, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, in unveiling the SAP, stressed that developments will not hurt the ecologically-sensitive hill.
The SAP proposes two cable car lines up and down the hill from the Penang Municipal Park and Teluk Bahang, the upgrading of the Summit Centre, construction of chalets and a new hotel, redevelopment of Coolie Line, where a hawker pavilion and other tourism facilities are located, and the setting up of a gallery and information centre at the Gate House.
The hill, reaching 830 metres above sea level, is currently accessible with the RM73 million funicular train from the Air Itam station at the foot of the hill, as well as with jeep track next to the Penang Botanic Gardens.
Lee said while his group commended the state government for having a public consultation for the SAP, and agreed that the cable car proposal was good for tourism, there must be in-depth studies done on the plans.
"Will there be no projects up the hill, following existing guidelines that no development can take place over 250ft above sea level, or will that imaginary line be removed? Will the development density on the hill change too?" he asked.
Describing Penang Hill as the state's crown jewel, Lee said tourists and locals were lured by its natural beauty and suggested activities to compliment the hill's attraction.
"Penang need not copy other states or international tourist destinations to do well in tourism. Those who want theme parks can go to Legoland in Johor or Disneyland in the United States.
"For Penang Hill, consider walking treks through the wilderness, guided tours, canopy walks, mountain bike rides, tours and challenges.
"Would people prefer their kids to be able to ride their bicycles in a green natural setting and breathe fresh air or on bike lanes in town while taking in vehicle emissions?" said Lee.
He also called for detailed studies to determine if the existing infrastructure on the hill could handle any future increase in tourist traffic to prevent the facilities from becoming white elephants.
Developments on Penang Hill have always been a sensitive issue to locals, especially activists who are expected to study the SAP closely.
In the 1990s, plans to develop the hill involving the state and Berjaya Land Berhad led to the "Save Penang Hill" campaign. The movement was led by the Consumers Association of Penang and mobilised Penang Hill residents, with huge support from the public.
The controversy cost the political career of the then chief minister, the late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, after he was defeated in the 1990 general election.
Chong Eu's successor Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon eventually scrapped the development plans, which included a cable car system and the privatisation of the hill railway.
Koh "watered down" the original development plan, and asked Berjaya to delay developments until a local plan was gazetted.
The move is said to have angered Berjaya boss Tan Sri Vincent Tan, who decided not to invest in the island state during the 18 years Koh was chief minister.
In August 2011, Koh, who was then out of power, said his government had rejected Tan’s proposal to develop Penang Hill in 1993 as it failed the Environmental Impact Assessment report.
However, Berjaya Land CEO Datuk Francis Ng refuted Koh's remark, blaming him for his indecisiveness as the cause for delaying the hill's growth as a premier tourist destination.
Ng reportedly said that pioneering and environmentally-friendly development concepts, such as the cable car, tourist villages and building of chalets originally proposed for Penang Hill, had been successfully implemented by the Berjaya Group in Langkawi and other parts of Malaysia.
Locals, stakeholders and NGOs have until December 11 to view and give their feedback on the SAP draft at the concourse area on level three in Komtar. The draft will also be displayed at the Penang Hill lower station, Mondays to Fridays, from 9am to 4.30pm. - November 18, 2013.