Get ready for some potty talk: Bathroom experts from 15 countries are gathering in Beijing for the World Toilet Summit in the hope of making every trip to a public restroom a more pleasurable experience.
Toilets play a big role in China's future. As the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing is trying to improve the state of its commodes. Most public toilets there are squat-style pits that scare the daylights out of Westerners. Visitors are warned to expect a lack of running water and to bring their own toilet paper.
Hoping to attract more tourists, the city has spent nearly $5 million in recent years. Among the projects: issuing a star-rating system for restrooms, so that visitors can plan bathroom breaks and avoid the worst.
"Toilets represent the level of development of a country or region,'' says Yu Debin, deputy director of Beijing's Municipal Bureau of Tourism.
Nearby Tianjin has launched a "Toilet Renovation Project" that aims to renovate 1 million local latrines and bring flushing, indoor comfort to rural residents.
Now, just as world leaders gather to discuss acceptable levels of pollution, toilet experts are gathering to bridge cultural gaps and answer one of the most basic questions of the human condition: What is a clean and decent bathroom?
Among the featured speeches at the fourth annual World Toilet Conference:
"The Position and Function of Public Toilets on City Projects and Construction," by Zhang Yue of the China Construction Department;
"Toilets -- A Tool of Social Change," by Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak of India;
"Loo of the Year as a Marketing Tool," by Richard Chisnell of the British Toilet Association;
And, "Toilets as Tourism Attraction," by Seok-Nam Gang of the Korea Clean Toilet Association.
The three-day conference, which has been dubbed "World Toilet Day," begins Wednesday and ends Nov. 19. Need a reason to celebrate? Take a look at some of the more amazing new bathroom products, and some of the stranger trends in public restrooms.
1. Shy Bladders of America Unite!
If you think public restrooms in America stink, you're not alone. A new group, the North American Restroom Association, is fighting for better bathrooms -- and more of them.
"The truth is, our country is far behind when it comes to public bathroom rights," says NARA co-founder Steven Soifer, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland.
"In places like Japan, there are public groups that make sure there are cleaner, safer toilets in shopping centers, bus stations and airports. Why can't we have an advocate group like that in America to steer people away from nightmarish situations?"
NARA is planning to help host the 2006 World Toilet Summit in the United States, which would be the first time such a meeting would be held outside of Asia.
In the meantime, Soifer's organization is trying to build public support and corporate cooperation on its Web site (americanrestroom.org) with message boards so that Americans can rate the good and bad restrooms in their neighborhoods, in the hope of one day building a database of star-rated toilets open to the public.
"If you had a bad experience in a public restroom," he says, "we want to know."
2. Portable Toilet Door Handles
Here's a new travel accessory no germophobe should be without: the Wakmah portable door handle, the latest gizmo to minimize contact with unsavory public restrooms.