Investing in disability-friendly infrastructure and services can help hoteliers and entrepreneurs tap the accessible tourism market in Nepal, a growing segment globally, while driving economic growth and accelerating recovery, as per a new study.

The report - Open to All: A Survey on Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities in Nepal's Hotels - covered 90 starred hotels in major cities. While 95 per cent of participating hoteliers were aware of accessible tourism as a concept, the study revealed they have not invested in necessary measures to ensure accessibility for persons with disabilities.

With existing facilities limited to ramps and lifts in most hotels, only 17 per cent of the surveyed hotels put up signs to help visually-impaired guests and 74 per cent did not have any Braille signage on door plaques and room directories, according to the survey.

Further, only about nine per cent of the hotels had staff who were trained in or had basic knowledge of sign language while only 33 per cent of the participating hotels had extra wheelchairs for guests.

The poor numbers were attributed to a range of factors, including old structures, remote locations, and fewer guests with disabilities. Many of the surveyed hotels also cited extra cost as a key deterrent to building ramps, purchasing wheelchairs, or providing other accessible infrastructure and services.

"Globally, the concept of accessible or inclusive tourism has gained ground in recent times. Accessibility at tourism destinations is key to responsible and sustainable tourism to ensure everyone can be part of the tourism experience, regardless of physical limitations, disabilities, or age," said Wendy Werner, International Finance Corporation (IFC) country manager for Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. "Accessible tourism is not only a human right, it also makes business sense."

According to the World Health Organisation, globally, around one billion people are affected by some form of disability.

According to disability rights experts in Nepal, as more persons with physical limitations and disabilities travel around the world, a focus on accessible infrastructure in hotels as well as tourism destinations can boost the number of foreign tourists in the country.

"Currently, around 2,000 tourists with disabilities visit Nepal every year," said President of the National Federation of the Disabled–Nepal, Mitra Lal Sharma. "But, with improved facilities and conditions that are more disability-friendly, the number could easily go up to over 10,000 tourists a year."

"Although accessible tourism is relatively new in Nepal, we are confident that with adequate support, we can push ourselves to explore and attract this growing segment of tourists to our country," said Shreejana Rana, president of Hotel Association Nepal. She said that second round of discussion should be held with hoteliers and they can correct the concept and behaviour towards disabled people.

Dhananjay Regmi, chief executive officer in Nepal Tourism Board, underscored collective efforts to explore opportunity of accessible tourism in Nepal. He said Nepal could tap the opportunity with strong collaboration among government ministries, hoteliers and other stakeholders.

Similarly, Bernerd Cocco, deputy residential representative of the United Nations Development Programme, appreciated the initiative taken towards accessible tourism.

"The survey report will definitely add to the knowledge and help make Nepal's tourism sector more accessible," he said. Cocco also said that Nepal has a huge growth potential if favourable infrastructure could be created to promote accessible tourism.

The study has recommended the government, the private sector, and donor agencies to work together to create a conducive environment by incorporating universal accessibility practices into relevant legal and policy provisions, with the involvement of persons with disabilities.

The study was conducted by the Society of Economic Journalists–Nepal, in collaboration with the National Federation of the Disabled–Nepal, with financial and technical assistance from IFC

A version of this article appears in the print on August 26 2021, of The Himalayan Times.