The smell of Cajun food in New Orleans or chocolate in Paris conjures up memories for travelers all over the world, yet nothing can replicate actually seeing Bourbon Street or the Eiffel Tower. So, how do people whom cannot see experience travel? Amar Latif, a visually impaired 41-year-old entrepreneur, dedicates his life to partnering the blind with the sighted in order to experience guided tourism - a form of travel that uses language to show the visually impaired our world.
While preparing for our phone call, Amar light-heartedly jokes about how difficult it is to see me. At the age of four, he was diagnosed with a disease that left him permanently blind by the age of 18. "It was a harsh reality that I had to accept", says Amar, "however, I couldn't let it control my life."
While studying Mathematics at the University of Strathclyde, Amar spent a year in Canada. "That was my first travel experience... it inspired me to continue and see the world," says Amar, whose desire to travel only intensified after graduation.
After spending time as an accountant, Amar redirected his life by teaming up with the BBC to collaborate on the documentary series: "Beyond Boundaries". The first season followed a group of disabled travellers, including Amar, across Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast. The team travelled over 220 miles in only 28 days, ending their journey by climbing an active volcano. It is hard to understand why this group, some of whom have no legs and no arms, would attempt hiking through grim indigenous forest. Amar humorously shouts, "why not!" He follows this exclamation with a pause and a subtle, yet, frustrated chuckle.
After his time in Central America, Amar found it difficult to join travel groups due to their suspicions in accommodating blind travellers. After being rejected by several companies, he set out to redesign industry standards. In 2004, he created Traveleyes, a one-stop online destination for blind and partially sighted people curious in exploring the world.
"It is vital to our experience that sighted travellers detail what they see" says Amar, as he explains his company's mantra. Traveleyes is not only for the visually impaired. The company offers a discount, up to 50%, to sighted travellers for lending their vision to describe each destination, as they see it. "It is important for our sighted explorers to paint a picture for those of us who can't see", states Amar whom is proud of the overwhelmingly positive feedback he receives from sighted travellers.
Amar guarantees a vacation that provokes all five senses. On a trip to Egypt, he suggested that in the vast open desert the entire group shut their eyes and run unreservedly down a sandy hill. Some travellers were uncertain. Nonetheless, as elated screams began to disappear into the desert, the whole group joined in on the fun. "It was freeing" says Amar, as he struggles to find more words describing this shared sensation.
As our conversation comes to a close, Amar reiterates the importance for disabled people to have the necessary tools in order to travel. Right before our chat ends, he reverts back to my foremost question: "now you know how we experience tourism, just like you".