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30 Nov, 2009

UN Conf In Takayama Aspires To Boost Tourism For People With Disabilities

The Japanese city of Takayama in Gifu Prefecture, which has reinvented itself as model city for people with disabilities (PwDs), was the venue of a 24-26 November conference designed to showcase how Asia-Pacific cities can promote tourism, mobility and employment for a rapidly-growing part of the world’s population.

The congress was organised by the Social Development Division of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and Takayama City. It was attended by about 200 local and central government officials, technical experts, academicians, advocates and professionals on disability, accessibility, tourism, urban planning and rural development from 15 countries.

Promoted by ESCAP for years, the concept of “accessible tourism” refers to tourism that caters to the needs of a full range of consumers including PwDs, older persons and cross-generational families. It entails “removal of attitudinal and institutional barriers in society, and encompasses accessibility in the physical environment, in transportation, information and communications and other facilities and services, at both publicly and privately owned tourist locations.”

According to the congress website and an ESCAP media release, the Takayama Congress aimed to “explore means and ways for the creation and sustainable development of inclusive and accessible communities in Asia and the Pacific, by learning lessons from experiences of the City of Takayama and other communities in the region.”

Although recorded as an ancient city dating back to around 400 A.D. and known for its preservation of traditional architecture and cultivation of traditional arts, the City suffered from a dearth of tourists and income in the 1990s.

In 1996, a vision was created for its redevelopment into a City based on the slogan, “A Town Easy To Live In Is A Town Easy To Visit”. Accordingly, says ESCAP, “the City has conducted barrier-free monitoring tours and improved its accessibility in many respects, both in the public and private sector, responding to the needs of its ageing population and citizens with disabilities.

“It is now recognised both nationally and internationally as a leading barrier-free city, attracting visitors from around the world and enjoying the economic impact of an increasing number of visitors.”

Congress presentations focussed on a primary school class on accessibility; effectiveness of hospitality training for service providers; entrepreneurship development and support for employment for persons with disabilities; ‘universal design’ in practice for the hotel industry and taxis. Specific panel discussions featured updates on developments for barrier-free travel in different parts of Asia.

In the Takayama City Center, visitors saw the accessible restrooms and a street designed for accessibility with signs in four languages. At the Takayama Municipal Recycle Center and Welfare Facility, they saw how jobs are being created for disabled people, and their work facilities.

Gifu Prefectural Research Institute for Human Life Technology demonstrated a project promoting the manufacture of people-friendly products, “based on ergonomics, to promote improved relationships between people, products and living environments.”

Participants also had opportunities to meet local residents whose awareness of and respect for the needs of PwDs have contributed to the success of making Takayama a barrier-free community, according to the congress website.

Takayama Mayor Mamoru Tsuchino, who pioneered many these initiatives, spoke at the conference which ended with a declaration laying out 20 recommendations on regional networking, advocacy, policy development, research and data collection, capacity building and resource mobilization on improving accessibility. A number of “agents of change” were appointed to take actions to follow up the results.

The ESCAP release said that one of the participants, identified only as Mr. Saksit, an advisor to the mayor of Pattaya, was particularly impressed with Takayama’s accessible roads and pedestrian walkways, and the clean environment free of littering. “This is a kind of city that our Pattaya City would dream of becoming,” he was quoted as saying.

Representatives from SM Malls, owner of the largest shopping centre in the Philippines, expressed an interest to host a regional conference on accessibility and private sector involvement in 2010.

According to ESCAP, regional countries need to make a paradigm shift away from a welfare-oriented approach to a human rights-based approach to disability.

The organisation says that although a worldwide Convention on the Rights of PwDs took effect in May 2008, which recognizes the right of accessibility for the first time in history, many Asia-Pacific countries still do not have appropriate laws and technical regulations on accessibility in place. Moreover, according to ESCAP, policy makers and implementers are not motivated to improve accessibility, citing budgetary implications.

However, the event also exemplified how a lot of the positive work being done by ESCAP is muted by poor quality information availability. The congress went unmentioned in ESCAP’s monthly bulletin for November which deprived it of any advance publicity. Neither the final declaration, nor any of the presentations, were on the website as of last week.

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