English-language tours may be increasingly commonplace in Japan, but programs for disabled foreign tourists are still few and far between.

Eagle Bus Co., based in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, is trying to change that with a package tour it is developing for foreign tourists with disabilities.

“Taking advantage of the expertise we’ve accumulated, we hope to attract more (disabled) foreign tourists,” Eagle Bus President Masaru Yajima said.

The firm has been operating so-called welfare vehicles with trained staff since it was established in 1980, Yajima said. It already operates tours for groups of disabled students and senior citizens.

Eagle Bus began developing the four-day package in October for the nonprofit organization Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation, which plans to bring disabled people on a trip to Tokyo in the fall, Yajima said.

He said the tour would probably include visits to Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics district, Sanrio Puroland amusement park and the preserved Edo Period area in Kawagoe. The firm will also start operating a one-day tour in English next month to draw more foreign customers.

But planning the four-day package has been a challenge.

Transportation is not a problem for the tour company because it has 27 welfare buses, including three large sightseeing buses that can accommodate 10 wheelchairs. Several of Eagle Bus’ drivers and tour guides are also qualified caregivers.

The most difficult part has been finding accommodations and restaurants that are accessible to the disabled.

“The tourists from Hong Kong want to eat ramen,” Yajima said. “But it’s almost impossible to find barrier-free noodle shops. Even city hotels have few barrier-free rooms.”

Since the mid-1990s, Japan has been trying to improve public access for the disabled.

The government enacted the Heart Building Law in 1994 and the Transport Accessibility Improvement Law in 2000, which require new and extensively renovated buildings as well as transportation systems to be made accessible to the disabled.

More disabled people can now travel with greater ease, according to experts.

But accessibility in Japan falls short of that in Canada, the United States and Scandinavian countries, said Iichiro Kusanagi, director of the Universally Designed Tourism Center. The center is part of Japan Travel Marketing Co., a think tank and an affiliate of travel agency JTB Corp.

Only about 10 percent of the 8,500 hotels nationwide have rooms that can be used by disabled or elderly people. The figure falls to a scant 1 percent for the 60,000 ryokan inns, according to Kusanagi.

According to the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry, 44.1 percent of rail, bus, air and sea transportation firms had installed ramps in their facilities by the end of March 2004. And only 21.2 percent of those had bathrooms equipped for disabled people.

Traveling around Japan is even more difficult for foreigners with disabilities, Kusanagi said.

He said the government has little foreign-language information on how the disabled and elderly can travel in Japan.

This is despite the government’s launch in 2003 of the Visit Japan campaign, which aims to increase the annual number of foreign tourists to 10 million in 2010 from 6.14 million in 2004.

“Foreigners (with disabilities) might feel anxious about coming here” because of lack of information about accessibility, he said. “What’s more, when disabled foreigners visit rural tourist spots, it is extremely difficult to get useful information (of how to have their needs met) because there are no foreign-language counters for them.”

The transport ministry plans to push for more facilities to become barrier-free so that people with disabilities can travel around the nation more easily, a ministry official said.

Kusanagi said the public sector, the tourism industry and nonprofit organizations all need to cooperate to set up a system that better serves disabled people who want to travel in Japan.

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