TUCKED DEEP IN Teluk Bahang is the kampung-concept theme park ESCAPE, the brainchild of chief ESCAPE officer Sim Choo Kheng. Inspired by his childhood adventures around his village, the park features dare-devil rides and games fitted into the natural landscape. ESCAPE comprises three sections: Adventureplay, Waterplay and Gravityplay, and holds the Guinness World Record for the longest water slide at 1,111m!1
In 2009 his Dubai-based company Sim Leisure won the open tender for the construction of an eco-rural concept theme park on a 44-acre site in Teluk Bahang, aimed at boosting the island’s tourism. After countless rejections from banks to finance the project, Sim decided to dig into his life savings to personally fund it instead; and in November 2012 Phase One of ESCAPE was finally opened to the public.
Gravityplay - On the way up to the top of the water slide. Photo: ESCAPE
A global player in the tourism industry and being well-versed in the building and management of theme parks, Sim shares his thoughts on elevating Penang’s tourism: “Firstly, we must determine what we envision the future of Penang to be like. Having the right vision and direction will help players within the tourism industry synchronise our understanding better. Only then can we strategise.
Read also: Can "The New Normal" be "The New Age"?
“Tourism is about per capita spending per day. Penang Island is small; which is why we should be selective and channel more effort in attracting high-yield tourists who are willing to splurge. It is about foreign exchange and about how much that can be pumped into the economy. We want someone who spends RM1,000, not just RM50; and we want someone who spends a couple of weeks in Penang, not just a few hours.
“For this to happen, we need to raise our standards and to focus on developing our high-end resorts, restaurants and more importantly, our level of cleanliness. As a whole, it’s about making Penang more environmentally friendly because that’s what high-yield tourists find appealing. And these tourists aren’t necessarily restricted to just international ones.”
To better make his case, he uses ESCAPE as an example. “People have high expectations when they come to ESCAPE since they’re not paying a small sum to enter. I have to make sure everyone wears proper swimwear when they go into the water. They can also rent swimwear here in the event that they don’t have any. If I don’t look after my customers who are particular about hygiene, they won’t come back. They’ll say it’s dirty.”
Body temperature scanning at the entrance of the park. Photo: Alexander Fernandez.
To ensure that ESCAPE is free from Covid-19, Sim has introduced additional preventive measures. “We are an outdoor theme park without any air circulation issues. If you’re talking about viruses or pathogens, you’re unlikely to catch it here. However, before entering the premise, customers need to check-in through the MySejahtera app and have their temperatures taken. Our waters are disinfected with chlorine via a continuous system throughout the day and our equipment are regularly sanitised. We also provide hand sanitisers and gloves throughout the park.” He adds that ESCAPE staff are also required to undergo health screenings before starting work each day.
On July 21 the Malaysian Association of Amusement Theme Park and Family Attractions (MAATFA) announced that theme parks in the country have racked up a staggering RM500mil loss during the MCO. The sum represents the total losses from the 88 theme parks registered under MAATFA.2
When asked if the closure of international borders has drastically affected business, Sim reveals that approximately 80% of his customers are locals. “This is fortunate because customer numbers are beginning to return to normal with the lifting of the interstate travel ban.”
Levelling Up Penang’s Tourism
Sim asserts that establishments that are dependent on bribes or “coffee money” and which do not compete on merit will eventually spiral downwards. “It is unethical when a driver directs unsuspecting tourists to an establishment that pays them a certain fee, while speaking negatively about those who don’t. When this happens, you don’t have a free market economy. ESCAPE has been threatened from Day One as we refuse to condone such illicit acts.” Sim also advises that for Penang’s tourism industry to excel, we should compare ourselves with the best and not the worst.
“Gone are the days when people depend on intermediaries such as package tours and tourist guides. Free Independent Travellers (FITs), who look for reviews online and get around by themselves, are rising in numbers; which is why customer feedbacks today influence businesses more than ever.”
Ultimately, Sim believes that “selling cheap” is never a sustainable long-term solution. “When you sell yourself cheap, you compromise on quality and service.” A critical ingredient in the tourism industry is to have a global mind-set. “While we cherish democracy, we should also cherish the free market economy. It’s a brilliant system that brings out the best of the local tourism industry.”