Why are wheelchair-friendly travel options in Asia so lacking? Plus five accessible tourist attractions among region’s best
While some progress is being made across the continent to improve access, much of Asia remains inaccessible to wheelchair users. We talk to the people trying to do something about the problem
Prasong Thongwang, from Thailand, has used a wheelchair since 1983 but was determined not to let that get in the way of his passion for travelling. “I love to travel,” he says. “But I had many problems each time I travelled. I had to do a lot of planning before I went. It was difficult and there wasn’t much help out there.”
Wanting to provide other wheelchair users with an easy way to explore his homeland, he launched Wheelchair Holidays Thailand in 2001 as the country’s first company catering towards travellers with disabilities. “The disabled must have full participation and equality, and that is what we aim to offer,” Prasong says.
Despite the United Nations declaring 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, with the aim of creating barrier-free countries that are friendly to people with disabilities, there remain huge hurdles for accessible travel across Asia.
While small steps are being made across the continent to improve access, much of Asia remains inaccessible to wheelchair users, who face a multitude of issues navigating cities, finding accommodation and accessing attractions.
“The need for greater accessibility has not gone unnoticed in Asia, and many communities are making small improvements where they can,” says John Morris, who was in a car accident in 2012 that left the then 26-year-old a triple amputee.
In 2014, Morris – who is from Florida – set out on his power wheelchair and has since flown more than 1.2 million kilometres (700,000 miles) to more than 30 countries. He also launched WheelchairTravel .org, an online portal providing resources and information on wheelchair accessible holidays across the globe.
Recognising the need to ensure people with disabilities have access to transport, attractions and information, efforts are being put in place to ensure destinations are on the right path.
Myanmar, a country that lacks basic amenities and access for those with disabilities, is leading a push to promote accessible tourism across the region.
Spearheaded by Dr Lu Mon, managing director of Mira Travels, the Mekong Accessible Tourism Expert Group has been formed with the aim of addressing the challenges that wheelchair users and travellers with disabilities face.
Lu Mon says the main problems are limited accessibility to infrastructure and facilities, poor perception about accessible tourism and its value, and the cost of investing in specialised facilities.
“We need to introduce universal design to new infrastructure projects and enforce it by means of laws, and promote public-private partnership,” he says, adding that in November, government and private sector representatives from Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines attended an accessible tourism workshop in Japan.
Morris adds that freedom and ease of movement is critical. “This can only be accomplished through accessible transit, taxis adapted for wheelchair use and pavements that are wheelchair accessible. When barriers restrict movement, travel becomes arduous, which is the very antithesis of what holidaymakers seek – regardless of whether they are disabled or able-bodied.”
Why Hong Kong is so hard to get around if you’re in a wheelchair or blind, and what could be done to make city more accessible
Lu Mon says that in Myanmar there are limited incentives to incorporate barrier-free facilities in new developments, and that the country has an almost non-existent disability-friendly trained workforce.
Charlotte Jean, a travel designer at Vietnam-based Roll in Asia, which specialises in accessible travel, says another major challenge is finding accessible hotels at budget prices – especially accommodation with more than two accessible rooms.
“Most accessible hotels are four- or five-star hotels from international brands. The difficult thing is that hundreds of hotels mark themselves as accessible on TripAdvisor or Agoda but it is absolutely not true, and websites do not check the truth of given information,” she says.
Prasong cites Thailand as an increasingly wheelchair-friendly country, where huge measures have been taken in the last few years to make it more accessible. The government has also mapped out a development plan to make Thailand accessible to all going into the future. “Many sectors, the Thai people and the government have helped push for improved facilities for people with disabilities,” he says. “It doesn’t run as fast as it should. However, I believe Thailand will be the rising country for accessible tourism.”
This will take time, however, and for now, public transport remains inconvenient, many key attractions are inaccessible, and there is still a lack of hotel rooms and restaurants catering for those with disabilities.
Similarly, Jean says that Vietnam is still often a difficult country for wheelchair users to navigate. Laos, for now, is a no-go country. “It’s too complicated and there are no accessible hotels,” she says.
Despite Roll in Asia offering tours in Siem Reap, Jean adds, outside Phnom Penh and Temple Town, Cambodia mostly remains inaccessible to those in a wheelchair, too.
Morris says it’s impossible to rate an entire country on its accessibility. Shanghai, for example, is more accessible than Beijing, he says. Bangkok offers more opportunities for disabled travellers than Phuket, and Kuala Lumpur caters more towards wheelchair users than smaller Malaysian cities.
However, he flags Seoul, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur as some of the best cities serving this sector. “Each of these have transit systems that promote independent mobility, hotels with adapted guest rooms, and tourist attractions that accommodate every visitor,” he says.
Prasong agrees that Singapore is a shining example, where subway stations are fitted with facilities such as ramps, lifts and wheelchair-accessible toilets, and where taxis are adapted for wheelchairs, and an increasing number of buildings and attractions are making accessibility a priority.
Jean adds that Sri Lanka and India are becoming increasingly well-equipped to cater towards visitors with disabilities, thanks to the number of elderly pilgrims from Asia that travel to the countries on retirement.
While Morris considers Hong Kong to be one of the most accessible cities in Asia – hotels offer adapted guestrooms, wheelchair friendly attractions can be found and more lifts are being installed at subway stations – he notes improvements could be made to increase the number of accessible taxis.
Last year a move to boost Hong Kong’s accessibility was unveiled with a trial of wheelchair minibuses being rolled out along selected hospital routes.
Initiatives such as Mobilituk in Cambodia – a wheelchair-accessible tuk tuk company – are paving the way for a more hopeful future, Morris says. “This is the most incredible development I’ve witnessed in the past few years,” he says.
“In many cases, the accessibility that exists today was gained through immense struggle. When we leave the comfort of our homes to travel, we benefit from the labours of others just like us – who, in demanding greater accessibility for themselves, actually open the world to us all.”
Five of the best wheelchair-friendly tourist attractions in Asia:
The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel, Shanghai
Morris recommends this tram journey which travels between Shanghai’s Pudong and Puxi districts beneath the Huangpu River. The psychedelic experience takes passengers through a tunnel filled with lighting effects that depict the story of life, science and physics. Lifts are at both ends.
Sea Life Bangkok Ocean World
This exploration of the underwater world is perfect for wheelchair users, Prasong says. Located two storeys below the Siam Paragon shopping centre, it is home to more than 30,000 creatures from across the globe.
Namsan Cable Car & Seoul Tower, Seoul
Morris says the Namsan Cable Car – Korea’s first aerial tram, connecting Myeong-dong district to the top of Namsan Mountain – recently became accessible to wheelchair users. Seoul Tower sits nearby the cable car’s hilltop destination and features a viewing deck – the highest spot in the city – and restaurants.
Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya
Sri Lanka’s Royal Botanical Gardens, which sit close to the city of Kandy in central Sri Lanka, is one destination flagged by Jean for its well-maintained paths. Attracting two million visitors annually, the gardens are home to an impressive collection of orchids and more than 4,000 species of plants.
Little India Street Market, Kuala Lumpur
The thought of negotiating a bustling market in a wheelchair may be off-putting, but Morris says the Little India market in the Malaysian capital is surprisingly wheelchair-friendly, with most of the stalls accessible to him. It is a popular spot with locals and tourists for buying food, clothes and souvenirs.