Swettenham Pier, at the northeastern tip of George Town and within the UNESCO World Heritage Site, is part of the Port of Penang, and one of the major entry points into Penang. The pier now caters to passenger cruise vessels and, occasionally, warships. As of 2013, Swettenham Pier recorded nearly 1.29 million tourist arrivals.
Built in 1889 and completed in 1904, Swettenham Pier was originally used for cargo shipping. With the completion of the pier, George Town was transformed into a major transshipment centre in the Malacca Straits. Swettenham Pier, notably, was also used by the Japanese as a submarine base when the Japanese occupied Penang during the Second World War. The pier remained in use for cargo services until 1974, when the Port of Penang finally shifted its cargo and container services to Butterworth on mainland Malay Peninsula. This, combined with the revocation of George Town's free port status in 1969, contributed to the economic decline of the city in the 1970s, sparking off massive unemployment.
Swettenham Pier was last upgraded between 2006 and 2010, enabling it to handle two cruise ships simultaneously. The pier has a 400 metre-long main berth with a water depth of 12 metres, as well as two smaller inner berths. The passenger terminal is also equipped with an aerobridge. More recently, there have been calls to expand the pier's capacity to accommodate more cruise vessels.
Swettenham Pier was initially named Iron Pier. It was only renamed in 1906, two years after its completion, after Sir Frank Athelstane Swettenham. Swettenham had served as the first Resident General of the Federated Malay States, which encompassed the sultanates of Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang, between 1896 and 1901.
Swettenham subsequently became the Governor of the Straits Settlements from 1901 until 1904.
In the late 19th. century, the British were in the midst of expanding Malaya's nascent rail network. As the rail line between Butterworth and Kuala Lumpur was under construction, the British authorities foresaw the need to expand the Port of Penang, in order to accommodate the anticipated increase in cargo from the Peninsula, and turn George Town into a major tin- and rubber-exporting entrepot.
Thus, the Straits Settlements embarked on a massive land reclamation project in the 1880s, eventually extending George Town's eastern coastline (prior to the land reclamation, Beach Street ran along the original eastern coast). Upon the completion of the land reclamation, which created more space for harbour trade, the British commenced the construction of Iron Pier in 1889. At the time, George Town lacked a deep-water port, preventing larger vessels from docking in the city.
The construction of the T-shaped Iron Pier, designed by Coude, Son & Matthews, was completed in 1904 at a cost of $636,332 (Straits dollar). Upon its completion, George Town was transformed into a modern transshipment centre, as larger ships could now berth, and ship cargo, into and out of the city. Government-owned warehouses were soon completed adjacent to Swettenham Pier, and tram lines were extended to the pier as well. Iron Pier was renamed Swettenham Pier in 1906.
While Swettenham Pier considerably boosted George Town's economy, the burgeoning marine traffic off George Town soon outstripped Swettenham Pier's capacity, which, at that point, was 600 feet long. In 1911, the pier was extended by 345 feet northwards and 255 feet southwards, bringing the pier's total length to 1,200 feet. This expansion allowed steamers and other vessels with a draft of up to 27 feet to dock at Swettenham Pier.
During the Japanese Occupation in the Second World War, the Imperial Japanese Navy put Swettenham Pier into use as a submarine base. Between 1942 and 1945, Swettenham Pier hosted not only the Imperial Japanese Navy's 8th. Submarine Flotilla, it also served as a stopover for submarines of the Kriegsmarine (Nazi German Navy) and the Regia Marina (Royal Italian Navy). The Germans, in particular, stationed their Monsoon Flotilla of U-boats at Swettenham Pier; its strategic location enabled the Germans to target Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean.
During the post-war years, Swettenham Pier continued to be used for cargo services. However, this changed in the 1960s. In 1969, the Malaysian federal government revoked George Town's free port status, leading to an economic downturn and massive unemployment as the entrepot trade dwindled. Also, the Port of Penang finally relocated its cargo and container services to Butterworth on the mainland in 1974, further reducing George Town's role as a major entrepot city. Meanwhile, the Malaysian federal government proceeded to develop Port Klang in Selangor as Malaysia's main harbour. These factors contributed significantly to George Town's economic decline in the 1970s.
In spite of this, Swettenham Pier remains as the major port-of-call for international cruise ships within northern Malaysia. It was last renovated between 2006 and 2010, expanding its main berth to 400 metres in length. This allowed Swettenham Pier to handle two cruise ships simultaneously. The two smaller inner berths were also lengthened; the northern berth is now 248 metres long, while the southern berth has a length of 219 metres.
Swettenham Pier has now become one of the main points of entry into Penang, attracting wealthy tourists who come via cruise ships. In 2013, Swettenham Pier recorded 1.29 million tourist arrivals, while 2,120 vessels docked at Swettenham Pier in the following year. Among the vessels that have docked at Swettenham Pier are some of the largest cruise ships in the world, such as RMS Queen Mary 2 and Quantum of the Seas. A number of cruise ships also call the Swettenham Pier as their homeport, bringing tourists into and out of George Town towards regional destinations such as Singapore and Phuket.
In addition, Swettenham Pier occasionally hosts foreign warships, including from Singapore, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Currently, Swettenham Pier, as part of the Port of Penang, is managed by the Malaysian federal government. There have been calls in recent years by the Penang state government to expand Swettenham Pier to cater to a booming cruise tourism industry. Swettenham Pier is also slated to be connected to the rest of George Town via the proposed George Town Tram System under the Penang Transport Master Plan.
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