Becoming a destination of choice for travelers with disability
by Dr Scott Rains
The Rolling Rains Report
Ajahn Khun introduced me to ongoing efforts at preparing Prayaville for travelers with disability. Together we audited Prayaville and Peemai Beaches. We also modified an existing facilities survey form. Even daily activities like grocery shopping became valuable observation sessions.
To this micro level of Inclusive Destination Development I would like to overlay a Vision Statement and recommend a Pre-Phase 1 process. Perhaps the Statement, or some reformulation with a similar long term scope, and process can provide guidance at the macro level to insure continuity of the project through the coming years.
This Vision Statement is written in the present tense to express the ideal goals of the project as if they were already reality.
"Prayaville is a barrier-free city with an affirmative policy of inclusion of people with disabilities (PwD) that is evident in its infrastructure as well as its business and civic cultures.
"Prayaville is a city with a community of citizens, as well as long- and short-term guests with disabilities, who actively participate in civic life through government, business, education, media, and the arts.
"Prayaville is a destination of choice for people with disabilities because it has applied Inclusive Destination Development principles of Universal Design in developing its tourist assets.
"Prayaville has differentiated itself from other tourist destinations while positioning itself within the mainstream tourist route of Thailand and of Southeast Asia.
Scope of Existing Project
A three-phase Prayaville Inclusive Tourism project that was presented to me when I arrived. It appears to focus primarily on barrier-free access. This is a necessary stage but it must be remembered that tourism, and tourist destinations, are a product that require an integrated approach to every step from product-development (such as barrier- removal) to marketing and redesign.
The three-phase project for Inclusive Tourism in Prayaville that was presented to me emphasized the beach districts and included development organized around these zones:
- Phase 1: The inland (East) side of the street along the beaches
- Phase 2: The shoreline (West) side of the street along the beaches
- Phase 3: The zone surrounding the tourist condo and hotel complex
I believe that the decision to focus on the beach area is the correct one for Prayaville.
However, a professional approach to Inclusive Destination Development would begin with an assessment cataloging all tourism assets of the entire city of Prayaville. It would note geographic clusters of high-value tourist assets to identify tourist zones. It would rate them by values such as income potential, international visibility, ease of development or similar values in order to rank them in priority as potential project sites. At that point a data-based decision could confidently be made on the scope and phasing of a project to make Prayaville accessible to tourists. (It is possible that Prayaville municipal government has already done such a study and this information was used to develop the three-phase approach above. My short stay did not allow me to research this area.)
Assuming that the decision to prioritize the beach area as a site for travelers with disabilities is the proper one I propose an alternate approach.
Scope of Alternate Project
This reformulation of priorities involves five phases reflecting the full product cycle from product development through marketing, continuous evaluation, and back to (re)development (improvement). In addition, I recommend a planning step to proceed phase one. In this step the disability community makes strategic and tactical decisions to assure the sustainability of this project. Specifically, the school and its key allies in the Prayaville disability community must determine how they will insert themselves at multiple levels in the city's tourism value chain so that they benefit through publicity and revenue for the work they do.
My recommended change to the existing plan starts with a set of assumptions. This set of assumptions is in turn derived from a quality-of-tourist-experience (human-centered) approach rather than geographic or urban planning (engineering-centered or problem-centered) approach:
- Assumption 1: Prayaville's beach areas are the highest tourism attraction for PwD
- Assumption 2: Design of these areas for PwD who use wheelchairs is a logical first priority
- Assumption 3: Clusters of PwD as tourists will exist surrounding the 1) largest, 2) most internationally famous, and 3) the most disabled-accessible tourist lodging near the beach area
- Assumption 4: Clusters of PwD as tourists will also exist surrounding the 1) most internationally famous and 2) most well-trafficked bars, restaurants, and other tourist attractions in the beach districts.
- Assumption 5: PwD are an especially vulnerable group requiring systematic planning for their safety in areas such as navigation and way finding, pedestrian safety in traffic, protection from violence, and emergency evacuation.
The Unique Role of Prayaville School
The Prayaville urbam area has a resource of great significance to the success of developing itself as a destination of choice for travelers with disabilities - Prayaville School for the Disabled and the network of staff and alumni formed through over 20 years of success.
Prayaville School provides the obvious service of education and workforce creation in the region. However, equally important and easier to overlook is the role of the school in the creation and maintenance of a local manifestation of Thai disability culture. The concept and products of disability cultures are held in high regard by the emerging field of Disability Studies. My recommendation is that the Prayaville school and larger disability community should gain familiarity with Disability Studies and especially the concepts of Universal Design and Visitability and alliances with individuals and organizations working in the field of artistic and cultural expression. In the process of such self-education it should hold public listening sessions on the desires of the disability community in relation to tourism development as well as smaller focus groups run according to standard practices for such research.
Currently, the school excels in wheelchair sports as one manifestation of disability culture. Plans to develop a sports center with the assistance city will create opportunities to attract spots tourism. A similar strategy can be pursued in the arts and other aspects of culture.
Summary of Phases
- Phase 0: Disability Community Establishes Goals & Positioning
- Phase 1: Surveys & Asset Assessment
- Phase 2: Mapping & Prioritization
- Phase 3: Product Development & Quality Control
- Phase 4: Marketing & Communication
- Phase 5: Product Improvement & Redesign
Description of Phases
Before the first phase comes a set of choices by the disability community about how it intends to maintain leadership and control of this project at every step.
This includes calculating the assets available to it such as human resources, financial resources, PwD with the competencies necessary to carry out this project, and the support of allies. It requires the disability community to determine how it will profit both monetarily and through publicity at every step. It also requires the disability community to determine what products (for example, booking travel reservations for incoming tourists, selling handicrafts, or renting rooms) and what services (for example, guided tours, van service, or training Prayaville hotel staff how to serve quests with disabilities) it will sell to sustain itself in this work.
The first phase is asset inventory. It is necessary to know exactly what tourist resources are available. Preparation for this phase is well underway through the work of Ajahn Khun as she prepares an accessibility survey tool. Community listening sessions at the school and controlled focus groups are appropriate tools at this stage.
The second phase is identifying where clusters of PwD concentrate due to accessible lodging. It also identifies where they cluster due to desirable tourist services. Finally it plots safe efficient paths of travel linking these areas. This differs from the existing three-phase approach by establishing areas of higher priority for development while still assuring that barrier-free travel is possible along the whole length of the beach districts.
The third phase the construction process - including monitoring, compliance enforcement, and certification. This phase requires nothing less than a community ethic of honesty and pride in workmanship. Lack of training in the concepts and practices of Universal Design combined with poor communication of requirements on the part of construction teams remain a key implementation problem. Lack of monitoring and enforcement by city officials, and a culture of graft that also constitute a serious threat to the success of this project. This third phase requires a combined commitment to education and enforcement. The result of a business-as-usual approach to the construction phase where poor workmanship is tolerated will be the injury of PwD tourists and the avoidance of Prayaville City by the international market.
The specific challenge to the Prayaville PwD community in Phase 3 is to develop the expertise to understand the construction process and its technologies in order to effectively monitor in the project in its own self-interest. (Note: Mastering these skills may be a possible future course of study for Prayaville School students. The existence of a professionally competent group of PwD in this growth industry would be a boon to monitoring tourism development. It would place PwD in significant positions in the value chain of Prayaville's tourism economy.)
Cooperation in developing Inclusive Tourism is evident from the Mayor of Prayaville. It seems likely that support at that level will continue. However, this third phase directly inserts the Prayaville community of PwD into an area of business where certain "privileges" and accepted practice exist that are in conflict with the interests of the disability community. The community must show political will to monitor in the face of possible resistance to its presence. The educational and strategic details of Phase 3 require more discussion than is possible in this initial document.
The fourth phase is the marketing process. People with disabilities rely on word-of-mouth endorsement more than any other group of tourist. This is because the unique physical needs of this market require specific tourism site data from trusted sources. Visibility of PwD in marketing materials is a valuable tool but more valuable are testimonials by PwD - including, and perhaps especially, Thai PwD. That is, international tourism by PwD will be positively affected to the degree that Thai PwD are represented in the marketing of Prayaville and are visible as employees or owners of the lodging and services that international PwD use.
The fifth phase extends the area covered by the first project. It will compare predicted behavior of PwD as tourists with actual measurements. It will also integrate the desire of Prayaville businesses that may not yet have experienced increased revenue from PwD but also wish to be integrated as barrier-free. These two factors, as well as Prayaville City development initiatives for the districts, will be the foundation of further projects.
Prayaville has great tourist potential. That potential for persons with disabilities as tourists remains untapped. Commitment from Prayaville School and its network of PwD and interest on the part of the Mayor of Prayaville make success almost certain. With a comprehensive approach similar to what I have outlined here I look forward to continuing to assist in this project and recruit my colleagues to do so.
In my short visit to Thailand I was the recipient of extraordinary hospitality. I saw only the best of the country and was grateful for the opportunity.
As a guiding principle for this project I offer this aphorism of the King that was shared with me by a Thai friend. I believe it speaks to the ethical issues addressed in Phase 3 above while suggesting a practice of self-discipline for the good of the community that can make this project a success, "Pid thong lung pra."
I am told it is an admonition to place your gold leaf offering on the back of the Buddha so that his image will be beautiful from all angles - even those that are often overlooked and under valued. That seems like good advice as we work to build the infrastructure and culture of Prayaville as a destination of choice for people with disabilities.
About the author
Scott's Rolling Rains Blog is a must read for anyone interested in inclusive travel and issues concerning Universal Design in the tourism industry. Scott consultants internationally on accessible travel and hospitality and is a popular keynote speaker at tourism conferences around the world. He can be reached at email@example.com
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