Like other Unesco heritage sites before it, George Town's "outstanding universal value" has been both shielded and threatened by its new status. Over 1,000 locations have been designated as heritage sites by the United Nations, but the prestigious label draws a stampede of visitors and the inevitable rush to capitalise on tourism dollars.

This phenomenon of "Unescocide", argued sociology writer Marco d'Eramo in 2004, preserves buildings but erodes the communities around them. 

Sites such as Laos' Luang Prabang, the Vietnamese old town of Hoi An and even Venice in Italy now host millions of visitors a year who come to gawk at their historical architecture. Yet, many of these buildings now house cafes, hotels and tourist shops similar to those which now line the streets of George Town, showing little evidence of the living, human heritage that has shaped each distinct site over the centuries.

Mr R. Sarwaisveran, 65, is part of a shrinking community in the city centre who lives and trades where he was born.

"There's going to be a big change. You won't be able to recognise George Town later," says Mr Sarwaisveran, honorary secretary of the Penang Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

He is a fifth-generation migrant who was born and raised in the family's 79-year-old home in King's Street. He and his wife live in the shophouse in Little India and run a textile and beauty business from it. But soaring property prices and rising living costs mean his days there are numbered.

"A lot of tourists are coming in and restaurants and hotels are making money. Textile merchants are not," he says ruefully.

Tourism now accounts for more than 40 per cent of Penang's economy. Its airport is bursting at its seams, with arrivals more than doubling from 2007 - before the Unesco listing - to 3.3 million in 2016. This has led to gentrification, and the culture and traditions that made the city unique are slowly being replaced by lookalike boutique hotels and "Instagrammable" cafes.

Official data shows that tourist accommodation in the city has grown by 60 per cent between 2009 and 2013, and activists believe there has been similar growth in modern cafes.

Meanwhile, about half of the 18,660 residents in the 260ha George Town World Heritage Site have left since the area's Unesco nomination in 2007. According to George Town Heritage Action Group spokesman Mark Lay, a survey that the group conducted in 2016 found about 20 per cent of traditional traders and craftsmen - charcoal makers, rattan weavers, wood carvers - have disappeared since 2012, when an inventory was taken by George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), the official site manager set up by the state government.