Community-Based Tourism For All: Staying Ahead of the Curve with Inclusive Tourism
April 25, 2023
Recognizing that tourism is one of the main drivers of Thailand’s economic development, the Accelerator Lab Thailand has embarked on a journey to support the growing momentum for sustainable tourism, balancing economic, social, and environmental development. The Lab focuses on sustainable community-based tourism (CBT) – a tourism management model that applies a ‘by the local people for the local people’ principle. CBT has great potential to be a champion for sustainable tourism because local people are the bearers of tourism impacts, both positive and negative, so they have the incentive to manage it in a sustainable way. However, the tourism landscape has changed rapidly in the past few years, calling for adjustments in the sector. Inclusive tourism is one that can have a major effect on the industry as global demographic trends are shifting. Thailand's tourism needs to foster the kind of tourism that allows everyone, regardless of their abilities, to enjoy the tourism experience – make it 'tourism for all'. This is not only to drive the Leave No One Behind agenda but also a market opportunity not to be missed.
When it comes to tourism for all, CBT faces an even greater challenge compared to large-scale tourism businesses. For instance, building infrastructures that comply with universal design principles usually requires a large investment and technical knowledge that may not be available in the local communities. Thus, disability inclusion is often left untouched because people believe that they do not have the resources to do anything. The Accelerator Lab Thailand seeks to challenge this assumption. We believe that local communities can develop ‘CBT for all’ by starting with initiatives that do not have to always wait for large-scale investment but leverage existing solutions and capitals. The key is to connect the perspectives of persons with disabilities (PWD) and co-design tourism for all offers together. Small tweaks in physical facilities and changing mindsets can have a greater impact than we imagine. The Lab began with an exercise to understand the tourism experience of PWD and build the capacity of our partners to search for grassroots innovations to leverage from existing local solutions. Based on these insights, we will later work with pilot communities to prototype solutions on CBT for all.
Why inclusive tourism: Disability inclusion is everyone’s matter?
To some, disability inclusion may seem like a niche issue but if we examine the concept closely, we will realize that disability is much closer to all of us than we may think. Over the course of our lifetime, we can observe different abilities in ourselves – from being a toddler in a stroller to an aging person with progressing visual and hearing impairment or an elderly wheelchair user, to name a few possibilities. We are all ‘differently abled’ at some point. Therefore, disability inclusion does not only benefit PWDs but also a much wider population, especially in countries where aging is an acute phenomenon. In Thailand, approximately 3% of the population or over 2 million people register as PWDs (Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, 2021) but the population aged over 60 years old is increasing rapidly – from 5% in 1997 to 15% in 2021. Globally, the population aged 65 and over is also growing fast with the projection to rise from 10% in 2022 to 16% in 2050 which will be more than twice the number of children under age 5 (United Nations Population Division, 2022). Advancements in healthcare not only allow people to live longer but also enable the elder generations to travel and enjoy discovering the world more than past generations. With the availability of time and financial resources, elderly tourists also have the potential to stay longer and spend more than younger travelers. Considering this growing demand in the domestic as well as international tourism market, it would be a major missed opportunity if Thailand does not start developing tourism for all now.
The people closest to the problem always know best
Many would say Thai people are very kind and often offer to help PWDs. While there is nothing wrong with kindness, the concept of equality and inclusiveness must be further promoted in Thai society. Seeing PWDs as a vulnerable group that always needs others to ‘help out’ prevents us from treating them as equal and capable change agents who have the best insights into the pain points and potential solutions. As a result, it is not uncommon to find many solutions developed for PWDs but not by PWDs, missing the chance to effectively address the problems. For this reason, the Accelerator Lab Thailand started with an attempt to understand the tourism experience of PWDs and perspectives as a prerequisite for our CBT for all development journey.
Part 1: Looking from PWD Perspectives
The Lab launched an online survey as well as conducted a focus group discussion to collect and better understand the perspectives of people with different types of disabilities: physical locomotion, visual, hearing, mental/behavioral, intellectual, learning, and autistic disabilities. The exercise revealed many interesting insights. For one, PWD enjoys traveling like everyone else; although the majority (44%) take only one to two trips per year, 30% actually take more than five domestic trips annually. Traveling with family is the most popular option but 21% stated that they travel with their friends with disabilities and 12% travel alone. The misconception of PWDs dependency on people without disabilities is here clearly being challenged. In terms of tourism experience, challenges, and recommendations for development, their reflections vary depending on their types of disabilities.
- People with physical locomotion disabilities reported problems with facilities for PWD e.g. the lack of wheelchair ramps, handrails, narrow doors, etc. as the top challenge. Even where PWD facilities are in place, there are also issues with actual usage e.g. PWD car parking space occupied by non-PWD, PWD toilet not up to standard or used as a storage room, etc.
- Meanwhile, people with visual and hearing disabilities highlighted communication problems e.g. the lack of signage and subtitle for the hearing impaired and the lack of audio description and braille for the visually impaired. PWD-friendly communication is critical, both at the tourist destinations as well as during the travel from one point to another e.g. no voice announcement on public transport.
For people with mental/behavioral, intellectual, learning, and autistic disabilities, the problems faced went beyond facilities and communication. They shined the light on attitudinal barriers as well as the lack of suitable tourism offers e.g. service provider’s attitude, limited activities for them, crowded places can scare some PWD, etc.
In addition to these disability-type-specific obstacles, there are also common challenges that cut across all groups.
Regardless of their type of disability, PWD faces many difficulties in finding information about facilities for PWD. For example, some hotels mark themselves as accessible with elevators but neglect to mention a set of stairs leading up to the elevators; PWD often has no idea if information will be PWD-accessible before arriving at the touristic places e.g. audio guide/description available or not. PWD will benefit greatly from data work to provide comprehensive information on PWD facilities and digitalization of tourism information.
Attitude and knowledge on PWD care also need improvement. With good intentions but incorrect understanding, PWD can be harmed more than helped. For instance, lifting a wheelchair instead of using a ramp is very dangerous; judging that PWD should or should not do something e.g. travel alone, go to certain places, etc. undermines their right to decide for themselves. One of the focus group participants shared stories of how her family let her choose for herself and the time when she was able to go into the sea with her family despite being a wheelchair user; it was her most memorable moment to have that shared experience with others.
Part 2: Shining a light on grassroot innovation
Apart from gaining insights into the challenges they face, we also seek to learn from PWD’s self-made solutions. Because people closest to the problem are the ones who have the most knowledge about the problem, they may already develop early-stage innovation to address the challenges despite all the limitations. An example of such grassroots innovation on disability inclusion turned out to be close to home. Namchok Petsaen, Communication Assistant at the United Nations Volunteers office for Asia and the Pacific, is a wheelchair user who wants to be more than a passenger in an inclusive journey. Facing many obstacles in accessing public transportation, Namchok wanted to show society that “PWDs are capable of doing things with different abilities independently”. So, he designed and created a motorbike where a wheelchair user can be the driver. This motorbike allows him to travel independently and change the prejudgment against PWDs. Check out his innovative vehicle in this video.
Inspired by Namchok’s example, the Lab invited our partners, the Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (DASTA), to also search for grassroot innovations and shift to user-led solutions and co-creation, so that affected people are empowered to uplift their own lives. Training on disability inclusion and grassroot innovation mapping for the DASTA team was provided as a preparation for our upcoming fieldwork with pilot communities in the coming months.
Because CBT for all is an intersection between multiple issues from community empowerment to disability inclusion and entrepreneurship, the Lab will connect expertise and perspectives from relevant stakeholders including government agencies working on tourism and PWD empowerment, the private sector, local communities, and PWDs themselves. Together, we will co-create and prototype local solutions on CBT for all in two pilot communities.