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Barrier-free tours gain popularity

  • January 2, 2009
  • Bruce Bromley

So-called barrier-free tours are on the rise at home and abroad as travel agencies try to come up with a wider variety of travel packages that cater to the needs of elderly and disabled people.

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Off-road venture: Elderly and disabled people in
Landeez wheelchairs equipped with special tires
take a tour of the Tottori sand dunes in Tottori Prefecture

Two years ago, Matsuyoshi Yamaguchi, 66, and his wife, Keiko, 62, took part in their first barrier-free tour in Japan on the advice of an acquaintance.

“We were a bit reluctant to join a  group tour but took part on a trial basis. Since my wife uses a wheelchair, the places we could visit had been limited,” Yamaguchi said.

The couple from Machida, Tokyo, were concerned they might not feel comfortable taking a trip with other people, but their concerns were unfounded. The tour guides accommodated the customers’ needs and provided enough free time away from the group for the couple to fully enjoy themselves.

“There was no psychological pressure about causing inconvenience to other participants. Thanks to the lift-equipped bus, frequent toilet breaks and the friendly attitude of the tour operators we felt safe,” Yamaguchi said.

The couple are now hooked and join Soleil tours sponsored by JTB Tokyo Metropolitan Corp.’s Barrier-Free Plaza several times a year, “We’d like to enjoy tours as long as our health permits,” Yamaguchi said.

In addition to JTB Corp., barrier-free tours for the elderly and impaired are also being offered by Club Tourism International Inc. and H.I.S. Co. Each company tries to accommodate tour-goers by surveying the participants’ conditions and needs in advance.

“To dispel the concerns of tour-goers before departure, we talk to participants as many times as possible,” said Masayoshi Imanishi, an official at JTB Metropolitan Corp.

Tours are also recruiting escorts who have care qualifications and experience with customers with special needs, as well as volunteers who are qualified caregivers.

Tomohiro Fuchiyama, an official at Club Tourism, once escorted a disabled man who required a high degree of nursing care on a tour of Germany.

“The tour was trouble-free and the man, who didn’t express much at first, gradually cheered up. After returning home, his condition improved significantly,” he said.

Despite these successes, barrier-free tours remain limited, but travel agents hope those with doubts give them a try.

“There are quite a few people who could take part in tours with a little bit of consideration. Before abandoning the idea of participating in a tour, we’d like them to talk to us,” one travel agent said.

Several inns, hotels and sightseeing spots have taken steps to ensure barrier-free access since a law was enacted in 2006 to promote access for elderly and disabled people.