Travelling from place to place to explore the world is increasingly becoming popular in this globalizing world. The great travelers of yesteryears like Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Neil Armstrong, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa revolutionized tour and travel, inspiring people to follow on their footsteps, on earth and beyond. Development of information-technology and transportation facilities has further enhanced interaction between different civilizations, lifestyles and cultures.
In this connection, Persons with Disability (PWDs), senior citizens and physically frail are becoming an unavoidable part of modern tourism industry. They can travel because of the enabling attitude of people towards them, creation of accessible physical environment and the ease of information sharing.
Tourism is a vital component of the country’s economy after agriculture and foreign remittance. Tourism helps with various tourism-related trade, generates employment/livelihood opportunities and enhances entrepreneurship skills, alongside facilitating social and cultural exchange.
Government agencies and travel and hospitality entrepreneurs are working shoulder to shoulder, striving not just for more tourist inflow but also to make them stay longer by organizing various activities. Nevertheless, Nepal has as yet failed to tap the PWDs, elderly and physically frail to enhance the country’s tourism potential. They are still unnoticed and neglected, denying their right to accessible/inclusive tourism. The requirements of elderly and physically weak persons are similar to the necessities of PWDs, in that both might be suffering from similar ailments like weakened eyesight and poor hearing condition, which makes it very difficult for them to use the facilities designed for average people.
Nepal can earn both money and prestige by tailoring its tourism industry to people with various disabilities.
The concept of accessible tourism evolved to welcome the population with functional limitation as an integral component of tourist trade, realizing that denying the people of disabilities the right to travel is a violation of human rights. The high tourist inflow countries like Portugal, Spain, Oman, India, UAE, Japan and Malaysia all promote accessible tourism. They do this through, in the words of the European Network for Accessible Tourism (ENAT), by “improving the accessibility of tourist information, transport, infrastructure, design and service for visitors with all kinds of access needs”. They provide an excellent model for accessible tourism.
It needs to be borne in mind that persons with disability and senior citizens are comparatively richer with reliable income sources, which they use to quench their thirst of seeing the world. They may be army personnel disabled in war with handsome retirement funds or retired civil servants enjoying their lives on pensions who want to travel.
Nepal could be one of their target destinations if it meets their need for adventurous and relaxing activities as well as religious/spiritual needs. This category of visitors is equally eager to climb mountains, raft, sight-see, trek, watch birds and strange animal in jungle safaris. Who gets involved in what depends on their functional limitations, interests and aptitudes alongside the kind of accessible environment/facilities in place.
Many PWDs and physically frail persons visit Nepal of their own desire, despite the obstacles. Many set records and stun the world. Erik Weihenmayer from Denver, Colorado became the first blind person to scale the tallest mountain in the world on May 25, 2001; Tom Whittaker, an amputee, became the first person with disability to climb Mount Everest on May 7, 1998.
Sadly Nepal has been unable to tap this segment of tourists; government policies and program are silent on promoting accessible tourism. The stunning achievements of persons with functional limitation in Nepal drew the attention of the world. But it seems they hardly managed to get the attention of Nepali authorities and stakeholders. If these remarkable achievements are honored, Nepal might unveil special arrangements for potential travelers with functional limitations.
Moreover, Nepal is bound to adopt measures to ensure accessibility as a signatory to Article 30 of UN Convention on the rights of PWDs; and to Takayama Declaration on the development of communities for all in Asia and the Pacific 2009, which affirms the importance of accessible tourism as a means towards inclusive and sustainable economic and social development.
Accessible tourism also helps create opportunities to enhance disability rights and elderly people’s rights as tourists with similar experiences are often interested in helping people in poverty, on one hand, and on the other, they might get involved in the tourist trade themselves.
Accessible/inclusive tourism is not a big deal if there is determination. Of course, in the long run, the country will have to embark on making whole of the travel and hospitality industry barrier-free for visitors with access needs. Nepal can start by making certain segments of the travel and hospitality services accessible for both domestic and external visitors with functional limitation.
The government should have clear strategy and direction for accessible tourism. Nepal Tourism Board, the government authority responsible for tourism development in the country, could take this noble initiative. Other organizations like Nepal Association of Tour and Travel Agents (NATTA), Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (TAAN) and Hotel Association Nepal (HAN) too should be involved.
Minimum training on related subjects for tour and travel operators, identifying destination for the PWDs and senior tourists, and addressing their accessibility needs will be a right start. Likewise, new tourist spots can be designed. For Nepal will not have the right to call itself a tourist country so long as it continues to ignore domestic and foreign visitors with access needs. The government must also not be excused for overlooking footpaths needs of PWDs and physically frail in its recent road widening campaign.
All these measures will go a long way towards promoting inclusive tourism in the country.