Beyond Empathy, Co-Creation Journey for Inclusive Tourism in Thailand

December 8, 2023


       At the beginning of this year, the UNDP Accelerator Lab Thailand embarked on a journey to promote ‘community-based tourism for all’ (CBT for all), building the capacity of Thailand’s community-based tourism to welcome everyone, regardless of their different abilities. Given the global demographic trends with an increasing aged population, the development of inclusive tourism will not only benefit people with disabilities (PWDs) but a much wider range of populations. Therefore, this is a mission in alignment with the Leave No One Behind agenda as well as an important market opportunity if Thailand is to stay ahead of the curve in the global tourism landscape. 

       As a passionate traveler myself, I was initially excited about developing inclusive tourism solutions, but I soon found myself more fascinated by the process of co-creation. I come to realize that ‘empathy’ will take you far, but ‘co-creation’ will take you much further. It is a good start to try to empathize and understand the people whom you design solutions for. However, it is nearly impossible to fully understand those who are different from you. So, why not invite them to work together? Let them share insights on the pain points, co-design, and co-create solutions together. 

       In this CBT for all initiative, PWDs were engaged every step of the way, as the co-creators of our prototypes. The learnings and results from the co-creation process have been consolidated into a publication Community-Based Tourism For All Co-creation Journey. This publication aims to share key principles that can be applied in other cases and showcase examples drawn from collaborative work between UNDP Accelerator Lab Thailand, Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (DASTA), Nutty’s Adventures, Siam Rise, and the pilot communities in Sukhothai and Suphan Buri provinces between June – October 2023. In addition to the publication, do not miss the video that will take you through our journey! 


      Behind the Scenes of the Co-Creation Journey 

      Is co-creation really that wonderful and easy? Beautiful, yes. Easy, no. Extensive coordination and stakeholder engagement takes effort. There were moments when I wished to shortcut the process and move forward quickly. However, results prove that engaging diverse perspectives leads to much better solutions. Three notable moments came to mind when reflecting on when the power of co-creation took me by surprise.  

      1. Inclusive pathway for all: The team began with infrastructure improvement. An existing access ramp at Amulet Printing House of Sukhothai neither complies with the national standard nor blends in with the beautiful traditional architecture. Seeking to change that, the first design idea was simply to extend ramp’s length and decrease the steepness by having it run from the front down to the right side of the house. However, our PWDs colleague pointed out that with this initial design, wheelchair users would have to go to the back to access the ramp while other people can enter from the front – making it rather divisive. The alternative user-led design is to re-construct the entire front entrance area as an ‘inclusive pathway’ that everyone, regardless of their different abilities, can use together. Co-creation process taught me that an inclusive mindset is not about adding separate facilities for PWDs, but it is about transforming the space to be one that everyone can use together.


      2. User-centric solution to accessibility information issue: Accessibility begins even before travelers leave their homes. Finding accessibility information on tourism routes is a real challenge. Due to limited public understanding, locations that are marked ‘accessible’ sometimes are not actually accessible. PWDs travelers shared that they have to search user’s review photos or Google Maps’ Street View to see actual conditions as ‘evidence’ before making their decision. Both the problem and solution are already suggested by the user’s story. This sparked the idea of training the local community to add evidence of accessibility such as photos and videos to an existing and widely adopted platform like Google Maps, instead of developing a new and narrowly known platform. I was excited to work on a solution that builds on how the users seek to solve their own problems i.e. grassroots innovation. However, there is still room for further development e.g. structuring Google Maps photo display to consolidate all accessibility photos in a single place for easy review.


       3. Local creativity to enabling drawing for the blind: Our co-creation involved not only PWDs travelers but also the local communities that wish to welcome PWDs to their community-based tourism (CBT). This last solution by a local activity facilitator in Sukhothai CBT surprised me the most. When the team first tested out CBT activities and discussed adjustments for inclusivity, I observed how our blind colleague struggled with the Sangkhalok Fish drawing activity (traditional drawing of Sukhothai). The activity required us to look at the template and copy the patterns, so I almost crossed this activity off the list of our CBT for all initiative. However, the local facilitator did not give up and explored different techniques to make the drawing possible for the blind. She finally came up with a solution to help people with visual impairment to draw Sangkhalok-style fish with full details by combining acrylic stencil to guide the drawing of the fish outline and clay jigsaws that guide the drawing of different sections inside the fish outline. I was very excited and inspired to see the change in the local community. Once they have a better understanding of disability inclusion, they are able to co-create solutions beyond our imagination. 


      Next episode

      These prototypes and pilots are merely a starting point. The team started at the community level to show that even with limited resources in local communities, inclusive tourism development is possible. Co-creation allows people of differences to better understand each other and work together. Small changes in understanding can create a lot of changes and impact many lives. Yet, we need these improvements and the change of mindsets upscaled. Local communities alone cannot transform the whole tourism ecosystem. We need to upscale our efforts to make the whole city an inclusive tourism destination with inclusive transportation, accessible accommodation, inclusive tour operators, etc. We also need to translate our experiences and lessons learnt on the ground into policies that create a conducive environment for inclusive tourism development nationwide. Therefore, no matter what role you play in the tourism sector, we need your joint efforts. Let’s transform our tourism landscape so that it can be enjoyed by everyone!

       Want to learn and co-create an inclusive tourism journey? Download the handbook of community-based tourism for all co-creation journey