Accessible tourism isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s an opportunity

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Making tourism accessible to all is a win-win for all. Source: Shutterstock

“Travel is a human right,” says the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)  Secretary-General Taleb Rifai. It has become as essential to modern life as our right to housing, to work, or to care, he believes.

But if, as Rifai says, this is the age of “travel as a human right,” we have an obligation to ensure that right is shared by all.

Accessible tourism for too long has been an afterthought for many industry operators and city tourist boards. A ramp tagged on here, the odd wheelchair lift installed there isn’t always enough to make the more than one billion people living with disabilities feel welcome in a new place.

Putting in the extra effort and providing equal access for all should not be viewed as a chore, but an opportunity, says Challenges magazine editor Mary Chen, who believes the process of making places accessible is not only beneficial to the recipients of such hospitality, but also to the people providing it.

“One of the plus points of the accessible tourist is that they don’t travel alone. Usually, they come with a companion or seek to travel in a group,” Chen said, speaking at the UNWTO Global Summit on Urban Tourism in Kuala Lumpur on Monday. “This translates into double or even triple the tourist dollars.”

Travelers with a disability also open up new avenues of tourism income due to their unique needs and travel requests. As is often the case these days, disabled travelers may not fit into travel packages currently on the market. This affords forward thinking, opportunistic providers the chance to develop customized packages tailored to their specific needs, Chen said.

Rather than be a subsector of the tourism industry, Chen believes accessible tourism should be pervasive across all sectors of tourism.

“Every tourist is different. Likewise, every accessible tourist will be different,” Chen told Travel Wire Asia. “Hence, accessible tourism is more than just a tourism market segment. It should be a niche component of all market segments, be it urban, eco, sport, business, or family.”

Tourism doesn’t just benefit those going on the holidays; the disabled community in host city also benefits. With creative promotion, new business angles can generate disabled-specific lines of work. Chen cited the examples of blind tours in Barcelona on which customers are blindfolded and taken around the city by a blind guide. More commonly, many cities now have Dining in the Dark experiences in which blind people act as servers.

But it’s not only those living with disabilities that require modified travel experiences. In a world in which one in six people will be over the age of 60 by 2030, accessible tourism will fast become a necessary reality for any destination looking to pull in the numbers.

As life expectancy continues to extend, as does the market of travelling retirees, and cities like Tokyo are wising up to this, making accessibility central to development.

“Tourism drives accessible development,” JTB Tourism Research and Consulting Company Managing Director Masato Takamatsu told Travel Wire Asia. “We are very much concerned with accessibility, for the disabled people in a wheelchair, for those with visual or hearing impairment, and also for the aged people.”

Pointing out more than a quarter of the population in Japan are over 65, Takamatsu says there are more and more people who struggle with travel, claiming the city has adapted and is “better prepared” for that demographic.

And the approach of making accessible tourism an integral part of the city’s development is paying off. Both Tokyo, and Japan as a whole, welcomed record numbers of tourists last year.

Chen believes this is how every city should approach accessible tourism – as an asset rather than an annoyance – and calls on governments the world over to make a concerted effort to make it a reality.

“Accessible tourism will not happen without global political will,” Chen said. “We need to look at the big picture in accessible tourism. Connectivity, mobility, and accessible infrastructure are the three key buzzwords to create a global accessible tourism action plan.”