Thursday, January 25, 2007

Consider Disabled Tourists Too

While Malaysia promotes itself as a tourist destination, it should also provide amenities for disabled tourists.

MALAYSIANS greeted the New Year with greater expectations than usual as it marked the very important start of Visit Malaysia Year (VMY).

The national tourism campaign for 2007 is estimated to bring in an extra five million visitors from overseas in addition to the 15 million foreigners who come into Malaysia each year. What makes this VMY even more special is that it coincides with our nation’s 50th anniversary as a sovereign nation.

Among the tourists who will be visiting Malaysia will inevitably be people with disabilities and their families. How will travel and accessibility into buildings and on the streets affect them? I posed this question to Antony Leopold last week.

Leopold, 55, has more than 15 years’ experience in the travel industry and now runs his own travel agency with his wife in Kuala Lumpur. Leopold contracted poliomyelitis on both legs when he was a child. Now the father of three gets around with crutches or in a wheelchair, when necessary.

“First, it must be pointed out that it isn’t easy for disabled persons to travel not only in Malaysia but also in many parts of the world,” said Leopold, adding that “some countries go all out to provide facilities for handicapped travellers.

“Travelling in developing countries in especially a problem, and it is advisable for disabled people travelling in such countries to travel with an able-bodied companion. Malaysia is no different.”

Leopold went on to point out the many hazards that blind and wheelchair-using tourists have to look out for in cities and towns: improper curb cuts, uneven or suddenly-narrowing pavements with lamp posts and trees, and indiscriminately-placed rubbish bins.

“Even overcrowded pavements can pose a serious problem for blind people as pedestrians can bump into them,” explained Leopold.

“The lack of ramps for wheelchairs and disabled-friendly restrooms make a number of attractions difficult, if not impossible, for the disabled traveller to visit.

“Unlike in Western countries, many restaurants here and even hotels rarely provide wheelchair ramps and so having some sort of assistance would be a necessity for the handicapped tourist.

“The same can be said for public transport like trains and buses, so visitors in wheelchairs have little choice but to resort to taxis,” Leopold said, adding that “even then, some cabbies might not want to take wheelchairs or will charge extra for them.”

Malaysia is famous for her exotic islands and beaches, which are among the most popular leisure destinations in Asia.

According to Leopold, although there are hotels that offer handicapped-friendly accommodation and facilities, some of the best beaches and places of interest are hardly accessible or restricted for wheelchair users.

Island-hopping or boat-riding may be made available to the disabled but Leopold advises a certain amount of caution as it often requires physical assistance by the operators.

“This may not be advisable for some disabled people especially when the helper is unfamiliar or not trained to help the handicapped,” Leopold pointed out.

Despite the problems faced by disabled tourists, Leopold is optimistic and wants to do something to make visiting Malaysia easier for tourists and Malaysians with disabilities.

He is currently working on introducing travel assistance for the disabled and the elderly under a project called “Travel Assist”.

The project will help disabled tourists to identify suitable accommodation, facilities and transportation. It will also draw up special itineraries, designed with the interests, abilities and budget of the disabled and special groups in mind.

Leopold plans to achieve this objective by working with the authorities and partners in the industry, both in and outside Malaysia.

In addition, he would like to urge local authorities to start thinking along the same lines by coming up with careful planning of their own.

“There are presently several places where the disabled can go to but some attractions and places of importance need further improvements to accommodate them,” said Leopold.

“As for rooms or facilities for the handicapped, most of them can presently be found only in luxury hotels and shopping complexes. Leisure activities for the disabled hardly exist.

“Transportation for the wheelchair-bound traveller currently involves regular vehicles, with able-bodied helpers lifting a disabled person on or off a vehicle and into a wheelchair.”

Leopold pointed out that, by comparison, disabled visitors to neighbouring Thailand have plenty of opportunities available to them. These include activities such as elephant-trekking, scuba-diving, sailing, and visiting temples and palaces.

“It is important to note that these are made possible by the foresight and assistance of the authorities and dedicated operators in designing their facilities and services to accommodate the needs and abilities of special group travellers,” said Leopold.

With VMY now fully underway, Malaysia should do likewise, too, he concluded.

Source : STAR
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