Accessible travel is one of the buzzwords in tourism right now. Over the last few weeks scores of articles arguing accessible travel will become a much bigger part of tourism have been penned by industry magazines ("Accessible travel 'an untapped market'" - Travel Weekly, "Accessible tourism has huge potential for more growth" - E-Hotelier, "Accessible travel is 'greatest untapped opportunity'" - Travel GBI). As someone who has built his career around providing accessible travel experiences I'm glad to see the industry recognising accessible travel and I have no doubt it will become a more prominent in the coming years. However, I have spotted a potential issue as these articles don't really explain what accessible travel or tourism really is.
When people hear the word "accessible" attached to tourism they think they have a pretty good idea what that means, and therein lies the problem. Almost everybody thinks they know what it means but, since it has never been fully defined, almost everybody has invented their own personal definition. That is a recipe for disaster. If travellers and the industry have no common language, then imagine how frequent disappointment and disputes will become? Especially if every high street travel agent reads those articles and suddenly decides they have to become an expert in it overnight.
For me, accessible tourism enables people with access requirements, including mobility, vision, hearing and cognitive dimensions of access, to function independently and with equity and dignity through the delivery of universally designed tourism products, services and environments. This definition is inclusive of all people, including those travelling with children in prams, people with disabilities and seniors, and is inclusive of mobility, vision, hearing and cognitive needs. In short it is a process of enabling people of all abilities to enjoy an experience independently and with equity and dignity through the delivery of tourism services.
This is what I try to think of when I plan experiences for people with disabilities, but I'm just one person with one set of experiences. So I reached out to fellow experts in the field, from advisors to business owners to bloggers, to get a full picture of what accessible travel means to them.
"To me, accessible travel means being able to experience a destination just as much as any other visitor. And if I can't experience something, then being embraced with a friendly attitude is always a good thing! When I went to Iceland, not every attraction and restaurant was accessible, but it was still one of my favorite trips ever because of the people. At one restaurant, the chef came outside and helped lift my heavy powered chair over a step so that I could get inside. The Icelanders were determined to show me the best of their country, despite it not being 100% accessible and that made it an accessible destination to me."
"There is so much more to accessible travel than ramps and hoists. When you think about it, these are simply tools. In reality, accessible travel is an attitude, it's a desire to welcome everyone regardless of the barriers they face. To me, accessible travel starts with an appreciation of the difficulties individuals face and a desire to help them overcome them. Often, a simple change in attitude towards accessible travel is more effective than any physical changes you can make."
"Until Elon Musk gets humans to Mars, we only have one planet to play on. Accessible Tourism for me is enjoying our world, without prejudice of who can enjoy it, and without harming it. No Borders. No Bullshit."
"When I think of accessible travel, I would hope that all the businesses involved have anticipated the kind of requirements that disabled travellers might need in advance. This could be via staff training in disability awareness for example, so that they are able to meet and exceed expectations of their clients. Even some of the most difficult situations can be overcome if staff are disability confident. I see this as an integral part of providing accessible tourism services."
"Travel that is truly accessible allows me to shed disability and feel like those who surround me. Accessible travel lacks barriers and roadblocks, is inclusive and equivalent, and focuses me on the tourist activity at hand, rather than the disappointment of missed opportunities."
"Accessible travel has many different meanings and doesn't necessarily mean the same to people with different disabilities. As someone with a physical disability, accessible travel means having absolutely no barriers to wheelchair accessibility. Travelling without fear or worry that something isn't going to be accessible to me. Allowing me to go wherever I want without having to check if there is wheelchair access, an accessible toilet, wheelchair accessible transportation etc. Having the same experiences as everyone else regardless of ability."
So whilst it's excellent that the wider travel industry is recognising accessible travel and tourism as a key factor in the market that will only grow in importance, it's important that rushed decisions are not made. As the variety of experts I talked to in writing this article highlight, accessible travel covers a wide range of factors and is as much about attitudes and approaches as it is about physical changes to a service. It's essential that hoteliers, travel agents, airlines and all the other interconnecting parts of the industry don't think quickly putting in a few ramps will make tourism accessible. Most importantly, it's important they remember to actually speak to disabled travellers to learn what makes a destination and experience accessible to them. By consulting with travelers, campaigners and advisors in this way, hopefully the tourism industry will open up the world to be enjoyed by everyone equally, regardless of age or ability.
All photos credited to Seable Disabled Holidays.