Responsible accessible tourism

We all need to wake up and smell the coffee when it comes to making tourism more inclusive, and we include ourselves in that statement. We think we’re pretty good at creating change when it comes to communities, conservation or carbon usage. But when it comes to basic care, consideration and communities of travelers with specific needs, we and many of the companies whose vacations we represent have been slow to act. Ask for gluten free bread at breakfast, and the chances are you’ll be in luck. Ask for a fridge to store your vital medication and you could just send the hotel into crisis mode. The travel industry is, sadly, still guilty of creating a ‘them and us’ scenario. Or just waiting for the law to make change obligatory. But we shouldn’t rely on the law to be truly hospitable. And so this is our call to action to tourism organisations, from tour operators to tourist boards. Hotels to hostels. In consultation with some of the leading world experts, here are some fundamental pointers to creating a more inclusive and, therefore, responsible form of tourism. We look forward to hearing your feedback.

Understanding accessibility

Martin Heng, Accessible Travel Manager & Editorial Adviser, Lonely Planet (Australia):
“It is important to remember that people with mobility issues are the most visible sector of the disability community but by far not the only members of that community. The main categories are mobility, sight, hearing and cognitive, such as acquired brain injuries or autism. But then you can take it a step further and talk about people who suffer from allergies, and food allergies in particular, are also on the disability spectrum. So the categories within the disability sector are huge.

“The idea of what is accessible is a very broad term, and what is accessible for one person may not be for another, even though their injuries or diagnoses are the same. I am a very good example of that. My brother and I are both C4 quadriplegics, but my brother has no movement below his neck, whereas I can ambulate indoors with a pair of crutches or a walking frame. That means our needs are completely different, even though our condition can be described as pretty much the same. So, you can’t rely on someone saying ‘oh yes, we have accessible rooms’. It means almost nothing actually”.

“If you use the concept of ‘disability’ in a product, it is blind marketing really. Because it is a negative concept. Disability activities, cultural visits and so on. No, this is wrong. It is not necessary to use ‘disability’ or ‘handicap’ or any other word, but the most important thing to understand is that I am just a customer. I would choose a hotel because it is beautiful rather than because it has a ramp instead of steps. I can work out a way of handling the steps, or the hotel can help me, but really I would really prefer to enjoy the building”.

Fiona Smart co-founder of our supplier Mas Pelegri, a superb sports hotel in Girona Spain:
“So many businesses don’t really understand disabilities, or elderly people, who need very different things than other guests. So, you can’t take a customised approach, like on booking websites such as I hate those, because you can’t chat with the guest. If they go through a generic booking website, then we don’t get their details until they have paid, and even then we often don’t get all their needs. So, it is really important to have direct contact with the guest, so that you can understand all their access issues, before they book.”

Brian Seaman, accessible tourism expert, who worked at leading charity, Tourism for All UK for 19 years: “Tourism businesses need to remember that accessibility isn’t all about wheelchairs, but also about sensory disabilities, learning disabilities and particular needs such as medical conditions – and try and cater for all these needs as much as they can, given their resources.”

Customer service

Chris Veitch, leading consultant in accessible and inclusive tourism:
“Research shows that the major barrier according to people with access issues, is attitude – the lack of welcome. The lack of warmth. The second barrier is lack of information available. And then, only third on the list, are the physical barriers and lack of facilities. Accessibility is an issue of quality of service, not rights. So, don’t give me a menu written in gold font, in 10 point Times New Roman font on a white background, because I might have a lovely meal, but it will already have been spoiled because I couldn’t read the menu. By just being a bit clearer, it would have improved the quality of the experience so much. And this is just at one end of the spectrum. For people at the other end of the spectrum, knowing about door widths, bed pulls, and so on, is fundamental.”


Chris Veitch, leading consultant in accessible and inclusive tourism:
“Developing information is one of the key areas of inclusive tourism. We are not talking about people who have come from another planet. They are just people, first and foremost, who want to have a lovely vacation. It is not about having a product that says ‘this is for disabled people’. Because they might want to go skydiving, an archaeological dig or whatever. It is about just adapting existing products. For example, if a young person who is deaf wants to go skiing, how can we ensure that when they are not skiing, they can fully participate and really enjoy the other facilities? And this is where information is key.”

The business case

Martin Heng, Accessible Travel Manager & Editorial Adviser, Lonely Planet (Australia):
“People with disabilities are a huge potential market – the UN puts the figure at 1 billion people with disabilities, and then the multiplier effect on top of that, with studies showing that people with disabilities travel on average with 3.4 other people. And the argument that businesses will listen to is, of course, the economic argument. This has shifted away from just talking about the accessible tourism market for people with disabilities, but also for retiring baby boomers. And this is what is catching the attention of the tourism market than people with a disability per se. And these retiring baby boomers are retiring with access issues, whether they identify as disabled or not. People talk about the value of the disability sector as the Purple Pound. And there are a growing number of tour companies responding to this.”

Chris Veitch, leading consultant in accessible and inclusive tourism:
“Recent research shows that the European tourism sector is missing out on as much as €142 billion due to rubbish services and attitudes. If destinations were accessible, demand could increase by 44% a year. Shall we repeat that? You shouldn’t need a hearing loop to catch the message loud and clear on this one. People with access needs really want to travel.”

So, why the Purple Pound? No one seems to be able to answer that. At Responsible Travel we think this quote sums it up rather wisely.
I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.

Think beyond the wheelchair

Fiona Smart co-founder of our supplier Mas Pelegri, a superb sports hotel in Girona Spain:
“I was just training someone this morning. This amazing woman who is turning 60 this year and has just recovered from breast cancer. She has decided she wanted to do a 100 mile bike event and do a spring triathlon. So this week was the first time on a road bike and she has already biked 50 miles yesterday. She was a little afraid of the open water swimming, but with a wetsuit for buoyancy and our support, it helped her lose the stress a little. Real inspiration.”

“We had a lovely guest recently who had Parkinson ’s disease, and who was in his electric wheelchair all the time. He wasn’t able to take part in activities but he loved being able to get around the place, and watch his family enjoy the facilities and get to do stuff. That is really important for families. For example, we have had families to stay where one child was not technically ‘disabled’ but just not as motor coordinated as others. We just had a family where one child had a palsy and pretty limited motor control. We went to the ropes course, but he felt that was a bit too much for him, so the other guys did the ropes course, and he did the archery there. And that was within him. They went off on bikes every day, as he was very happy cycling. So, there is such a range of what people call ‘disabilities’.”

Chris Veitch, leading consultant in accessible and inclusive tourism:
“Only 4 percent of the UK’s ‘Purple Pound’ or disability sector are wheelchair users. People with learning difficulties account for 12 percent and 47 percent are people with long term illness. And then there are dietary requirements. Gluten free is a huge market right now. 70 percent of disabled people have invisible disabilities. But no matter how extreme the person’s needs, it is all about hospitality and giving the guest an amazing, memorable experience. It is about that smile. This intangible element of good service is very important in tourism. We all know that. But for people with access requirements, it is absolutely crucial.”

Travel & self confidence

Justin Francis, CEO, Responsible Travel:
“From my personal experience recovering from a kidney transplant, I felt trapped at home and it wasn’t good for my mental health. To live is to experience things, and on the few occasions I did get away I was able to leave behind thoughts of my illness – it was bliss. It was also great to give my wife a break. Finding information about what you can do is daunting; all the exciting things seemed off the table. When you are ill, your confidence drops, and it’s stressful and depressing trying to research.”
Studies have found that people are at their happiest when they have a vacation planned, but traveling with any form of disability can too often still be a demanding, overwhelming and stressful process.

Over a fifth of the UK population lives with some form of disability, long-standing illness or impairment, whether it is physical, mental or cognitive, and with 1 in 4 people in the UK experiencing mental health issues each year, the figure may well rise further. The majority of people were not born with their disability, but one in five of us will be affected by disability at some point in our lives. If not ourselves, then someone we know, and perhaps enjoy traveling with.

Destinations, accommodations, transport providers and tour operators need to improve the quality of information they provide on the suitability of their vacations for people with varying abilities, because ‘accessible’ can mean very different things to different people. We want to see more businesses casting aside their fears around cost, or of not being ‘perfect’, and instead starting real conversations with customers. We’re on the cusp of real change here when it comes to accessible travel. The next few years are going to be very interesting.
Our travel team is always happy to discuss your particular requirements when it comes to accessibility. If we know early in the process exactly what you need then through communication with suppliers we can make appropriate vacation recommendations, and ensure that every aspect of your trip will meet your needs, from accommodation to meals and support.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Braille signage:] [Customer service: Avi Richards] [Travel & self confidence: Andrik Langfield]