Johor Bahru Redefines itself as a New Attractive Urban Destination

Chinese New Year celebrations in Johor Bahru old town

Across the Strait of Singapore, the Malaysian city of Johor Bahru has been standing for a long time in the shadow of its powerful Singaporean neighbour. However tourism has been booming in Malaysia’s Southern State thanks to the development of theme parks and resorts around the coast. While Johor Bahru City is experiencing a real renaissance with a string of trendy shops and restaurants.

Talk to Singaporeans about their neighbour Johor Bahru and their reaction might fluctuate between skepticism, anxiety and even disdain. Johor Bahru is indeed regularly making headlines in Singaporean newspapers which report mostly about Singaporeans being robbed or money extorted by locals. “It happens of course but no more or no less than any other cities around the world. We are rather a welcoming, relaxed place”, says Muhammad Amirul Ardy Abdul Rahim, Deputy Director of Tourism Johor.

The first impression of Johor Bahru city after passing the border from Singapore is of a bustling, messy place due to construction taking place all across town. But there is no feeling of that JB is a lawless, violence-prone destination. This is confirmed by the rising popularity of the destination: 6.4 million tourists were recorded in 2015; 6.7 million tourists were expected in 2016.

The city centre of Johor Bahru is currently experiencing a true renaissance. It started back to 2008 when a new immigration and customs facility was opened in parallel to the new transportation hub JB Sentral which concentrates train, intercity and local bus services. Malls around the new infrastructure have been expanded and transformed into an exciting shopping experience while new skyscrapers are surging around which will totally redefine JB Skyline in the next three years.

Johor Bahru Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque, one of Malaysia’s finest examples of European classical architecture

They are at least half a dozen new skyscrapers being built in the heart of town. But most interesting for travellers wandering in JB centre is the revitalisation of the old town. Relatively compact – it consists only of half a dozen streets-, JB old town has been turned into a lively young quarter where trendy fashion shops, vintage stores stand next to many small restaurants and cafes. At night, the area welcomes “JB Bazaar”, a night market which offers souvenirs, food specialties and fashion. But above all, it is a great place to meet and chat in the most casual way with locals. The area is turning extremely popular for visitors.

Johor Bahru tourism authorities are also realizing the potential of bringing travellers to enjoy the history and culture of the city. JB has its fair share of colonial style buildings to llok at, from the beautiful Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque, the Sultan Palace to the Sultan Ibrahim Building, Johor old iconic construction built in Moorish style from 1938 to 1942. The place used to be the seat of the State administration and is now due to be opened to the public as a new tourism attraction.

Another highlight in town is the “Street of Harmony”. In the old town, the street is lined up with all religious institutions showing the great diversity of Johor population. Next to each other stand a Sikh, a Chinese and an Indian Temples while the Catholic Church stands at the other end of the street. The street is part of Johor Bahru heritage trail.

Johor Bahru Skyline from the Causeway Bridge

There is more to be done to turn JB into a truly easy-to-navigate tourism destination. The city still lacks proper signage for its tourist attractions while the “heritage trail” is hard to see when walking around town. And they are certainly more areas to be highlighted in a tourism itinerary with some houses worth knowing for their history or  architecture.

While many old houses and walls now welcome street artists, there is no art itinerary pointing those creations to visitors.

There is also a lack of tourist kiosks providing information while the bus system is difficult to understand as they are no clear stops… A tourist city bus stopping at major attractions would be a great add-on to the tourism product.

However, authorities are open to suggestion, probably the best way to improve Johor Bahru tourism product. “Just tell us what you think”, advised Muhammad Amirul Ardy Abdul Rahim of Tourism Johor. Any professional is then welcome to express his view over Johor Bahru city…