GEORGE TOWN (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Billed by Unesco as "a living testimony to the multi-cultural heritage of Asia and Europe", the popular George Town World Heritage Site is unfortunately seeing a resurgence of illegal hotels with questionable fire safety.
"Yes, we know that new ones are emerging again," city mayor Datuk Yew Tung Seang said.
New guest houses are seen in parts of the heritage enclave especially in Stewart Lane and Love Lane.
This despite a blitz of sledgehammering a few years ago by city officials.
Several new ones are in operation now, some taking the places of guest houses that were closed down when Penang Island City Council (MBPP) went on a crackdown last year.
In 2014, the state government issued temporary licences to guest houses and small hotels that began spreading all over the heritage enclave. The purpose was to allow them to operate while they worked on fulfilling all the requirements to get permanent licences.
Fuelled by booming tourist arrivals, these start-up hoteliers created chic and trendy accommodations in pre-war houses but they did not have the financial means to comply with regulations such as fire safety and heritage conservation.
There were over 260 unlicensed hotels and guest houses then.
In November 2017, the grace period ended and MBPP went down hard on all those who failed to comply with by-laws for a hotel licence.
Enforcers then raided several hotels and tore down cramped rooms with sledgehammers.
Datuk Yew said hoteliers should know that they must be properly licensed.
"The requirements they must fulfil are to ensure the safety of guests and smooth running of the city."
"If everyone does whatever they want in the heritage enclave, we will have a mess," he said.
It is learned that MBPP is awaiting instructions from the state government following the recent crackdown on illegal hotels.
In the meantime, Mr Yew urged new hoteliers to submit their licence applications to MBPP.
"The sooner you come, the more time you have to work on compliance before we begin enforcement."
To get their licences, hoteliers must convert the premises from residential to commercial status and this requires planning permission, which costs tens of thousands of ringgit to draw up the building plans.
The owner of a new hotel in Stewart Lane, who does not want to be identified, said she rented the pre-war house.
"It was a closed down hotel, so the rooms are all ready.
"I have been in the hotel line for many years. This is my passion.
"We are dedicated to ensuring the safety of our guests and I feel that the requirements from MBPP are too stringent.
"How can you expect us to have concrete flooring on the top floor when this is a pre-war house?
"Guests want to live in an old place like this which has wooden flooring.
"Some of the regulations don't make sense," she said.
She said that if she were to do the renovations to comply with the rules, the landlord would not pay for it.
"Some of the requirements need major renovations to the building. If I do it and the landlord ends my tenancy, I won't get compensation," she explained.