Tomas Haupt - Jan 13, 2009
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What is accessible tourism in the 21st century, and how is it designed? Do the products and services currently available really cater for the demands and needs of a constantly evolving market? Is there a concrete dialogue between users and service providers that has developed sufficiently to guarantee an effective response? Is it possible to measure the accessibility of tourism services? And, ultimately, is this the sort of investment that pays? These are questions that still confront us – is the tourism industry listening – I am not sure that it is!

Is accessible tourism a viable size market to entice tourism providers to confront?

At the end of 2008 it is a fact that accessible tourism was the fastest growing business opportunity in the tourism industry. It is also a fact that the tourism industry needs to recognise that this business opportunity also includes the world-wide growing older population, and see this unique market of people with disabilities as being very profitable.

More than 54 million U.S. residents, or about 19% of the population of the USA, have some sort of disability, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in December 2008. In Europe there are approximately 50 million people with a disability. 63% of people with disabilities are older than 45 years. Nearly 30% of people in the age group 55-54 report a disability. Is this a big enough market for the tourism industry to come to terms with?

70% of people with disabilities are able to travel, but because of the lack of accessible tourism accommodation and other venues such as restaurants, museums, theme parks etc, they do not. There is an enormous mismatch between demand and what is offered by tourism providers in the way of infrastructure and services, neither of which are meeting the needs of people with disabilities. All stakeholders in the tourism industry, including transport companies, need to make more effort to improve the quantity of accessible tourism facilities. People with accessibility needs have the desire and the right to travel like everyone else. However, their travel experiences are still highly restricted by physical barriers such as transport, inaccessible accommodation and other tourism sites as well as other barriers such as a general lack of information or poorly designed web sites.

A recent study undertaken by the Balearic Islands School of Catering in Spain found that 90% of hotel chain websites and 75% of individual hotel web sites were inaccessible to certain groups of users. As a result tourism providers lose market share. A survey carried out by Viajes 2000 in Spain found that people with disabilities nearly always return to the place they initially found accessible

With these figures in mind it is obvious that this cannot be termed a ‘small niche market’. Accessible business is big business and the market is growing fast – partly because the world is growing older.

The tourism industry should realise that open access benefits all customers – accessibility is a competitive and economic advantage, not just a social or legal responsibility.

Various providers in the tourism industry, both private and public, have started, although too slowly, to be aware of the importance that a substantial portion of potential customers pay for products and accessible services.

In many countries legislation is in place, but its implementation is not mandatory, but this does not mean that accessibility should be ignored by the tourism industry.

Returning to our question: “Is the tourism industry listening?

It is very clear in relation to world-wide accessible tourism the demand is increasing very rapidly. The demand is not only coming from people with disabilities, but also from elderly tourists, who do not see themselves as being in any way disabled, but who appreciate the fixtures and fittings in accessible accommodation, to aid their balance. There is also a lesser, but increasing, demand from families with young children for accessible facilities.

So the answer to the question posed is “I fear not”.


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  1. "The Handicapped"

    Back in the 1980 there was an organization SATH - The Society for the Advancement for Travel for the Handicapped" of which I used to be an active member.
    To answer your question Sheila, I found at that time, and I doubt whether this has changed, that tourism officials in towns, villages, hotel and resort operators and tranportation companies, are not welcoming handicapped travellers, as that may "ruin" their image. Healthy, active people do not want to be reminded of those who are less fortunate, and of possibly getting old. They are on vacation and want to enjoy themselves and seeing people with disabilities "dampens" their spirit - here you have it - that is the naked truth! Even spa towns do not want to have them - and those are places that would really benefit many disabled travellers, as being in the water allows many to be mobile and defy gravitiy!

  2. More resources at the European Network for Accessible Tourism

    At ENAT - the European Network for Accessible Tourism - we can report a growing interest in how to make tourism possible and more pleasant for everyone, especially people with disabilities. European countries, cities and regional destinations, as well as a host of venues, attractions and travel providers are getting their act together to welcome seniors, disabled and family visitors who demand better accessibility.

    You can find resources on this subject by flicking though the Resources, Good Practices and Theme pages

    ENAT asbl is a non-profit association of organisations and individuals from the private, public and NGO sectors. Our mission is to make European tourism destinations, products and services accessible to all visitors and to help promote Accessible Tourism around the world.

  3. Not everywhere's unwelcoming

    I've been involved in the Scottish tourism industry for over 30 years, and back in the 80s was responsible for producing an access guide for disabled visitors to Aberdeen. I never once encountered the sort of unwelcoming, discriminatory attitude described in the previous comment, either at that time, or since.

    Considerable help at that time from people with many disabilities educated me that:
    * not everyone who is disabled uses a wheelchair
    * not all disabilities affect mobility
    The important thing is to tell it as it is - what physical and other obstacles might be - some people will be able to cope unaided, others will need help, others possibly will not be able to enjoy the facility, even with help. Interestingly, VisitScotland's Quality Assurance schemes work on this principal.

    I have applied this thinking to my work ever since, and constantly try to ensure that what I and my clients offer is available for all. However, there are some places (in this part of Scotland, most notably ancient castles and whisky distilleries) which are never going to be completely accessible to visitors with impaired mobility.

    I myself now have a sensory impariment, so am also now gaining first-hand knowledge and experience of that.

    Here in the north of Scotland, there are many examples of businesses and attractions which really practise "tourism for all". The most notable are:

    Crathie Opportunity Holidays, which offers cottages designed not only to be accessible, but also practical and enjoyable for anyone, regardless of disability.

    Royal Lochnagar Malt Whisky Distillery, which has devised a special tour for those who cannot climb their stairs, offering a superb experience.

    And for the person who mentioned spas - not a spa, but an open air pool with clean, filtered seawater heated to 28 deg C (82 deg F), which is accessible for wheelchairs and has special showers, changing areas, and a hoist for getting into/out of the pool - despite being within a Listed Art Deco building from the 1930s, and having funding only from a cash-strapped local Council and local volunteer group, the Friends of Stonehaven Open Air Pool.

    (United Kingdom)
  4. hearing loops

    I do sympathise with Sheila's points, but those (tourism businesses, shops, local authorities, whatever) who are trying hard should be recognised. It's so easy to discourage those who do try to deliver something special - and succeed - by using the lowest common denominator, rather than accepting that there are examples of excellence.

    And as a hearing aid user myself, who is fortunate to have digital hearing aids, I wonder how useful a hearing loop is any more. I'm sure there are still people with analogue hearing aids who benefit, but I personally have never found a hearing loop to be any better than the normal setting on my aids. This may be my ignorance of what life's like for other hearing aid users, but as more and more people who can afford to travel appear to have digital aids, I wonder if hotels etc might spend their cash more effectively on providing braille/tactile/large print/vocal information and taking advice on colour contrasts for decor/soft furnishings to assist blind and partially-sighted people?

    (I'm waiting for other hearing aid users to shoot me down!!........)

    (United Kingdom)
  5. Accessible tourism

    Thank you for all those who have commented on my article. I thought I would just jot down my thoughts on these.
    I agree not all people with disabilities use a wheelchair. Wheelchair users were not the basis of my article. Accessible tourism is also a requirement for the vision and hearing impaired and those with an intellectual impairment. Very few tourism providers cater for the vision impaired, even less for the hearing impaired. How many hotels have a hearing loop attached to their reception desk? It is the tourism providers themselves who appear to think that everyone who is disabled uses a wheelchair. How many times do we see the words 'wheelchair friendly' used by tourism providers when advertising that their facility is 'accessible'. How many tourism providers have Braille and/or tactile signage, or brochures in Braille or large print?
    Ivor Ambrose is correct. There is a growing interest in tourism for people with disabilities in Europe (just look at the ENAT web site and also the number of accessible facilities to be found in the international section of the web site: But Europe is only a small part of the world and many people with disabilities find it difficult to travel to other parts of the world where the word 'accessible' is not understood. Accessible Tourism is not confined to accommodation and/or tourism venues. Other aspects make life difficult and here I do mean for wheelchair users.. I was recently in Tallin, Estonia and had to travel on the road in my wheelchair because there were no kerb ramps for kilometers to enable me to cross from one road to another. Accessible Tourism is the responsibity of both the tourism providers and the city bureaucrats responsible for accessible infrastructure. I maintain that some are listening, but the majority are not which was the essence of the article.
    Please keep your comments coming.

  6. Secretary - Australia For All Alliance Inc

    Re the comment of Elma McMenemy as to the usefullness of hearing loops. Many meeting held in large or small rooms (Courts, Council metings etc) are not fitted with hearing loops - so personal hearing aids in these situations are useless. My group disributes for sale a small Swedish hearing aid which is no bigger than an I-pod. It comes with its own personal induction loop which fits around the neck of the user. It works in conjunction with the 'T' switch on the individual's hearing aid. The aid and induction loop can be tucked into an outside garment if the user does not want it to be seen. It has all round hearing capability and has been demonstrated to work in conjunction with Cochlear Impants. If anybody would like any futher information on this hearing aid.


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