It was a let-down as far as local tourism attendance at the International Conference on Accessible Tourism was concerned but as far as Yeoh Siew Hoon and her panellists were concerned, they wouldn't have missed it for the world because it changed their world.
The lack of or, shall I say, absence of delegates from the local tourism industry at the International Conference on Accessible Tourism (ICAT) held this week in Singapore was disappointing.
Whether it was due to poor marketing leading to low awareness of the event or ignorance, indifference and apathy to this segment of tourism, it was a poor show for Singapore as host country and a huge loss of opportunity for local industry players to learn more about an enormous and growing market and a potentially profitable segment.
Other than two representatives from the Singapore Tourism Board, the only other tourism delegates were my panelists and I. And let me say that Maggie White of Tourism Australia, Evan Lewis of Accor Asia Pacific, George Booth of Tourism Integrated Services, Kliff Ang of Asia Travel and I learnt more from our involvement than the delegates could ever learn from us.
There were delegates from Spain, India, Switzerland, France, Thailand, Philippines and Taiwan, all wanting to learn from how to make their countries more accessible to travellers. There were academicians from Hong Kong and Dubai, wanting to learn more about new technologies to improve life for their disabled and elderly.
Some travelled by wheelchair to a country that was rated "medium" for accessibility in the local newspapers by the keynote speaker Hideto Kijimi who inspired us with his stories from his ""lying wheelchair".
Kiji, as he is known, was paralysed at 17 in 1990 from a rugby accident and has since traveled to 99 countries – that's more countries than Accor has hotels, observed Evan later in our panel. Kiji spoke about his travels with heart and humour and, to me, his accomplishment was making the extraordinary sound ordinary. (I will share his story next week)
Then there were sessions on "Access to the skies", "Accessible Accommodation & the importance of service" and "Making your websites accessible", a workshop which covered the implications of accessibility for people with different disabilities.
This morning, I attended the session on the employment of disabled and wondered how the tourism industry can better engage with this segment of the community as employees. Disabled they may be but unable they are not and if meaningfully engaged with, could become a valuable and important part of the tourism workforce.
For George, Evan, Maggie and Kliff, preparing for their panel was an eye-opener. Like me, this was a segment they hadn't actively studied before and the more they researched, the more they found about it and the more they became aware of another side of the travel world. (I too will share their research in a later edition of the Café.)
George discovered how geared up Western Australia was to the disabled and elderly. Maggie shared a tourism masterplan Australia had done to make the destination accessible to all – and Australia is one of the most progressive destinations in this regard – while Evan found out just how much was being done within Accor to not only cater to the disabled and elderly as customers but also to recruit them into the workplace.
Kliff was a banker for 20 years and saw an opportunity to make a business out of an ignored niche segment and is putting together the first accessible tour of Singapore. His goal is to become the leader in accessible tourism in Asia, looking after disabled and elderly travellers.
Each of them also told me that because of their research, they started becoming more aware of the disabled in the world they moved in. They started noticing travellers in wheelchairs at airports, on the trains and on the streets and becoming more sensitive to their special needs.
Each also shared their personal experience. Maggie has a father who has to use a walking frame and when she wanted to take a trip with him, she learnt how important it was to have the right information readily accessible so that they could better plan a safe and comfortable trip for him.
Evan has a grandmother in her 90s who had booked a coach holiday for herself and was then told by her daughter (Evan's mother) and doctor that she could not go. She ended up not talking to her daughter and a few weeks after, the family found out she had booked another coach holiday and went off by herself.
And that was the key lesson my panelists and I took away. Everyone, regardless of age or ability, has an equal right to travel and it is the responsibility of the tourism industry to ensure that right is met.
As Kiji said, "Our want (to travel) is more important than our ability."
Often we can be aware of something but it takes a personal experience to change one's consciousness. For my panelists and I, experiencing this event in which all of us were, for the first time, placed in an environment where we were outside our comfort zone and yet made to feel so at home and welcome was an inspiration.
As George said, as we were leaving the building, "We are so lucky, aren't we?" The unlucky ones were the ones who missed the event.
It is said that the sign of a civilised society is how it treats its disabled and elderly. I think the same can be said of a civilised tourism industry.Yeoh Siew Hoon, one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, writes a regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry for 4Hoteliers.com.
Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com
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