Locals compounded this situation by either ignoring the city's cultural charms or neglecting them altogether.
However, a homegrown heritage movement - the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) - kept plodding quietly and sometimes, rather vocally on the need to not only respect, but also give a second look to George Town's unique identity, architecture and traditions.
It is the efforts of these tireless crusaders from the PHT that was instrumental in the international recognition conferred on George Town two years ago, when the inner city was inscribed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) World Heritage List.
Since then, a new air seems to have been infused in George Town, where investors are recognising the potential of heritage tourism.
The old formula of waxing lyrical and positioning Penang as a beach resort with sun and sea and pristine skies can now be replaced with selling the state as a cultural tourism destination.
Private sector initiatives in recent years to restore and rehabilitate pre-war buildings in George Town's inner city has seen new life into what used to be derelict and run-down structures.
While some locals and participants of the Malaysia My Second Home programme have begun to invest in shophouses and call them home, others have seen the potential of housing their businesses in these solid buildings.
In place of empty and neglected shophouses are now charming cafes, restaurants, art galleries and boutique residences.
The government's property market report for 2009 showed that a total of 164 pre-war properties (totalling RM74.22 million) were transacted in Penang during the first six months.
This is in contrast with the 120 pre-war properties worth RM64.45 million transacted in the state during the corresponding period in 2008.
To ensure that investors continue buying into heritage properties in Penang, efforts must be put in place to promote these dwellings when tourism players go abroad to market the state.
Cultural heritage tourism can be a major contributor to the state's coffers if an integrated approach is adopted.
While incentives should not only be given to heritage tourism players, the state must do its homework in better understanding how culture, heritage and the arts can be appealing as tourist destinations.
By "rediscovering" culture as an important marketing tool to attract travellers with special interest in heritage and arts, the spinoffs can be significant.
Heritage tourism, if promoted responsibly and correctly, can help not only preserve the island state's cultural heritage but also facilitate harmony and better understanding among people.
The move will also support culture, help renew tourism and more importantly, serve as a fresh take in branding Penang instead of competing with other island resorts which are miles ahead of the game in selling its sun, sea and skies.
By Business Times (by Marina Emmanuel)