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YOU Better BELIZE It!!

by Deborah Davis

zip line

I figured I could wait till a week out to book my hotel for the last leg of my trip to Belize. I had already booked the first half of trip in the Northern Jungles, and was undecided as to what part of the country’s coastline I wanted to visit for the last four days of my week-long visit.

I then discovered a surprising and time consuming truth. Belize is not exactly accessible to tourists in wheelchairs. Seriously folks, very little has really been done to open up this beautiful country to travelers with disabilities. Apparently, there are only a handful of hotels that have even a single accessible room.

Even Frommer’s.com concur

“Most disabilities shouldn't stop anyone from traveling. There are more options and resources out there than ever before. However, in general, there are relatively few handicapped-accessible buildings or transport vehicles in Belize. A very few hotels offer wheelchair-accessible accommodations, and there are no public buses, commuter airlines, or water taxis thus equipped. In short, it's relatively difficult for a person with disabilities to get around in Belize.” Read more: http://www.frommers.com/destinations/belize/272883#ixzz2lOk0AET3

I loved this travel bloggers assessment which I read prior to seeing the proof myself:

“The fact is, most of Belize simply isn’t accessible for people with limited mobility. Or just for those of us who aren’t as spry as we used to be.

Hotels almost invariably are built elevated from ground level. Walkways at jungle lodges or even at regular hotels are cobblestone or rough boards or loose gravel. Often the best rooms, those with the views, are on the top floors, up several flights of stairs.
I can count the number of hotels in Belize with handicap-accessible rooms on the arthritic fingers of one hand – Calico Jack’s in Placencia, the original SunBreeze in San Pedro, Hok’ol K’in in Corozal Town, and maybe a couple of others. Aside from elevators in the high-rise hotels in Belize City, the Radisson Fort George, Renaissance Tower and the Princess, and the little one atCorona del Mar in San Pedro, here are almost no elevators anywhere in the country.
Even the new condo developments in Placencia and Ambergris Caye are going up two, three or four stories without elevators. (Surely, developers will figure out the average buyer of a US$600,000 condo is not going to be a 20-something marathon runner, but more like a retired couple with a hip replacement or two?)
I understand the problems of building in a hurricane- and flood-prone environment, on sand, on remote hillsides. I realize there are no laws requiring access for those with less than perfect mobility.
In today’s world of aging Baby Boomers with bum knees, though, there’s a market for hotels and condos with easy access. Somebody is going to figure out that wide doors, access ramps and elevators sell. Even if it’s not mandated by law, it can make good economic sense to make new construction in Belize accessible to everyone.” http://www.belizefirst.com/RamblesAroundBelize2008.htm

Banyan Bay www.banyanbay.com, located on San Pedro Island, was one ocean front hotel that was recommended and available (overlooking the pool - not ocean - as is typical for “handicapped rooms” are found to be placed in least desired locations), but I decided that I really preferred to go south to Placencia. A web search came up with Roberts Grove (http://www.robertsgrove.com/) which prides itself on having an accessible room for those with disabilities. While they were incredibly gracious and helpful, by the time I was ready to book, the room was already reserved. Another wheeler was going to the resort that same week and they were going to have to build a ramp for him to a non-designated first floor room. They offered the same for me, but the bathroom wasn’t accessible and they had a shower, no tub and no shower chair, so I declined this trip.

I looked to Hotels.com and used their search option for “Accessible room.” A few hotels that met my discerning criteria - including accessible rooms - came up! YAY! I found one I liked, The Placencia http://www.theplacencia.com, and called the agent to book it. I asked him to contact the hotel directly to determine which “room category” was actually the one where the accessible room was. He put me on hold for quite a long time and came back to assure me it was the junior suite (the lowest value - again, this is typical) so I said great, book it! I actually celebrated with him as I had already spent two days looking for a truly accessible option. I had inquired on Kayak.com, Trip Advisor, read blogs, scoured through vacation rentals, all major booking sites, and Googled various keywords until my eyes blurred - but I refused to give up. I wanted to find and support a property that actually made the effort to provide some accommodation. I am like a dog on a bone when I want to find something, and I wasn’t about to settle for some two star hotel in Belize City with the only available accessible room in the country. So after I hung up with Hotels.com, I immediately sent an email to the hotel directly (as is always my practice) announcing my booking reservation and confirming I will actually be requiring the accessible room option that I requested. (Strange that these booking engines will consider wheelchair rooms that we specifically book as “requests,” thus making them not guaranteed. How exactly is that logical? I know in California now you can book a room in that category specifically - good for CA!)

I must have celebrated too soon because I then got an email from a nice lady representing the company.

“Thank you for choosing The Placencia Hotel.
I received a booking request for a Junior Suite.
Unfortunately this room is not wheelchair accessible,
And this room has only a waterfall shower no tub.
I would not say any of our room are accessible. We have
Had several guest in the past that we have accommodated
Be making an adjustment in the stairs but this would be only
In the Master Suite first floor. We would be happy to
Do the same for you but will only work in a master suite.”

So, I agreed to pay an additional upgrade fee (per night) for the room that I could use. Hotels.com even agreed to credit me the difference and I was VERY impressed with how they handled this major miscommunication. When I got to the Placencia, I found they had built me a steep, but workable (unsafe and not possible for most - but doable for us), ramp. They even greeted me upon my arrival at the steps of the entrance to the lobby and checked me into my room. They then built a ramp to the pool area (three steps up, which was doable with help, but they wanted to build it for me anyway).

ramp

That evening, they called my room and made the offer to carry me up a full flight of winding stairs to the restaurant for dinner. I agreed and two security guards met us at the stairs upon our arrival.

They further accommodated us by allowing us to order from any menu and eat wherever we wanted on the property (with them bringing the food to us).

Overall, the room was large enough and could have met most accessibility standards and could have been fully usable by most if they had made just a few minor adjustments.

Simple grab bars, a shower chair for the tub, and a raised toilet would have made all the difference.

toilet   shower   basin

But that is basically the story throughout most of Belize, or any country that has not yet figured out the incredible economic opportunity of Inclusive Tourism. Belize is becoming a major destination for retirees, and investors are driving rapid development and home/lot and time share sales… but it is missing the boat by excluding (outright and blatantly) anyone with a mobility impairment that does not have a full entourage to lift them into tubs, planes, and automobiles. Of course, many people cannot be lifted without injury to themselves or others and/or prefer not to be.

Where are the accessible buses, taxis, tours, accommodations and public spaces?

Let’s start at the international airport, shall we?

There were no accessible restrooms in sight; the one you first come to upon arrival had one door removed, so I could at least get close to a toilet bowl, however, the seat was too low to transfer, so it’s a good thing I didn’t need to!

On my return, I did find a larger stall I could enter and actually shut the door at gate 5, but again the seat was too low. How simple would a few accessibility signs and a few extra toilet seats and bars and doors be? I can tell you from experience that these larger bathroom stalls are coveted and appreciated by ALL travelers. Rarely will a person who needs these stalls find one available that is not occupied, even when all other stalls are open. So, clearly, they are preferred by all.

There were some roughed out concrete ramps… not built to a proper slope (1/12 per ADA) or smooth enough to not proceed with caution, but hey…. at least SOME effort was made there.

My first stay was at the Maruba Resort (http://www.maruba-spa.com/), which I found to be the perfect jungle experience and loved the colorful and detailed “ethno” themed décor and amazing grounds. I was able to roll around the resort on mostly stone paved walkways and had a direct stepless entry into the room. Again, while the bathroom was workable, no actual accessible features were provided. I just happened to be able to just squeeze my chair through the door and had the strength to get off the low toilet seat (though I did begin to fall once, I was saved in time.)

They did make some crude efforts at accessibility and had gravel pathways to pool decks, steep and incomplete ramps to pool area bathrooms and dining area and no steps to rooms.

path  pathpath  path

The resort is known for the spa, and the massages were truly the best I ever had. Don’t skimp; treat yourself to at least one treatment a day if you do visit. They also have a hot mineral bath that was my favorite place to go each day after a dip in the pool or a night cap. It was worth the very bumpy, one hour drive via the resort provided transport. I wouldn’t recommend it to those who cannot tolerate jarring… but if you do make it, the welcome rum punch is well deserved and you will find you need the massage! It is a great experience and three days was plenty of time to relax and regenerate.

Maruba Resort

I actually got car sick on the bumpy ride back, so we decided to fly to our next destination rather than rent a car and drive as was planned. We booked a flight with Maya Island Airlines and I was literally carried onto the 12 seater plane for the 45 minute journey to the southeast island of Placencia.

airport   aircraft   on board

No worries about chairs being bent up in the storage hold, they just put it on the floor (unsecured) by my feet. Two quick and fun landings later in this small aircraft, we were at the Placencia airport, a tiny airport with no ramp to enter the building upon my arrival.

Prior to my arrival, I had written to almost every hotel and tour operator on the island of Placencia, and only a handful bothered to reply. I must say most of them were quite humorous (if you have a sense of humor), but some may view them as quite insensitive. I didn’t have the time to properly reply, but if I could, my reply would be what’s written in italics below. Too blunt, you think??

“Deborah, we would love to help you, but I am guessing that our facility is not the best for your use.” Bathroom is fairly small, definitely not room for a chair inside. Stall shower.” No, a bathroom is really best for my use, but thank you for your reply.

- "You could maneuver anywhere on our grounds – sand paths to the beach.
- Our lodge (lounge, dining room, gift shop, office) is second story with stairs only for access. If you think this would work for you, please let me know. We would love to help you enjoy a stay at (name withheld), but definitely do not want you to come and be uncomfortable due to our facilities.If you would like us to be comfortable, why not make the changes to facilities?

“We have to make you aware that the resort is built on sand with no concrete walkways and no designated pathways, and all the rooms are elevated with steps which do not have rails. The interior is split level, and also inside the rooms and in the restaurant which is also split level, there are no rails. The resort is reachable by boat only which requires our guests to step in and out of boats with a certain level of mobility. Unfortunately, based on these features, the resort cannot be qualified as accessible. I would have to agree. Seems to me you know exactly how to fix these issues now. Will you?

“Greeting from Sunny Belize! I would also like to mention that all our ground level rooms do have couple steps before entering the room.” Ever consider building a ramp??

“Thank you for your interest in (name removed). We currently have a ground floor unit which is Pool/Garden view. There is 1-2 steps to get to the door. I am not sure if that would work for you guys. Our common grounds consist of 2 levels.” It would work much better with a ramp ;)

“We would love to have you with us. However, #$%^@@@ would be very difficult to get around with a wheel chair as all our rooms are off the ground. We also do not have bathrooms that are wheel chair accessible. Access to the resort is by boat only and it can be a bit challenging getting on and off the boats. However, if you believe that this is not a problem, then please let us know if you have alternative dates as we are already full for the requested time frame." Thank you but I do believe that would be a problem.

Come on now, are WE having FUN yet?? ;) How about ONE more for good measure??

“Thank you for your email inquiry for #%^#%# Resort. We recognize you had many options of resorts on the island and are honored that you selected (blank) Resort.

Unfortunately we do not have any accessible rooms. Upon entering the unit there is a step and the doors are not wide enough for wheelchair. Belize is a challenge and especially Ambegris Caye.” It is a “challenge” only because you built it that way. Ever think you could make it less of one with a small investment in some structural changes? Ask me how and we would be happy to show you.

Ok, all the “fun” aside, the one thing I learned in Belize, which was actually the most impactful on me, is regardless of how intentionally or unintentionally inaccessible and excluding the country is, they are some of the most helpful, willing and friendly people I have ever had the pleasure of overcoming “challenges” with. There was nothing that was impossible to them. Literally nothing was refused. I was pulled in and out of boats, my chair held over head and walked from ocean to deserted islands, and provided with a private snorkel guide to assist me via the amazing crew at the Splash Dive shop.
(http://www.splashbelize.com/).

sand island
splash dive  splash dive

I had three of the strongest most fit men literally mule carry me up a forest mountain and attach me to not one, but eight zip line platforms and take me tandem through the longest zip line in all of Belize (http://www.bocawinaadventures.com/). I would not recommend the zip line for most as it is eight separate platforms and lots of hiking and climbing, steep inclines with gravel, dirt and wobbly pathways made of stones with cut off tree trunks in between. I am 128 lbs and I just about killed my poor guides who literally carried me the entire course. One or two zip lines would have been sufficient. I had no idea in advance of the actual course, and I thought I was going to be raised to just one platform and go down one zip line. This is the kind of thing an experienced disabled specialized tour guide would have been able to provide some knowledge on beforehand and could have advised not only what was feasible, but also what was safe and reasonable based on individual limitations. Let’s just say I was sore and exhausted - as I am sure was the whole crew!

zip lining zip lining zip lining
zip lining zip lining zip lining
zip lining zip lining zip lining
zip lining zip lining zip lining

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I would definitely recommend anyone going to Placencia to contact my tour organizers Roam Belize Tours
(www.roambelize.com) who personally made all arrangements, met us at our hotel and drove us the hour drive (a drive that was a highlight of the trip as you get to see the countryside) to the zip line at the Bocawina National Park. Julie was the first person to respond to my inquiry with many providers simply ignoring my emails.

Smiles, love, warmth, and an infallible spirit of hospitality are what make this country worth the effort if you think you can pull it off.

They could benefit both economically and culturally from an inclusive travel consultant, like those that TravAbility.travel (http://travability.travel/services.html) could provide. They can train tour providers, governments and tourism entities on how to make the small efforts that could make all the difference in the world to travelers who make the effort to come and visit their country.

One example is Robert’s Grove. I was fortunate enough to be a guest for dinner hosted by the Sales Director there, and I was pleasantly surprised that I could roll all the way from the parking area to the back pool deck and from the walkway to the restaurant (outdoor seating only as there was a step to the main indoor seating area) and pier.
The bathroom in the main dining area was not accessible, and when I asked if there was a possible alternative (a girl can dream), I was told to go to a bathroom behind the registration desk that may work. To my surprise, the employee restroom would have worked IF they made the door open outward. So this small change (along with a raised seat and a grab bar) would give this restaurant a wheelchair accessible restroom for guests. What a concept! Especially since they actually have an accessible room they promote on their website: “ Ask about our accessible rooms.” (http://www.robertsgrove.com/)

While I was unable to visit Robert’s Grove during daylight hours and actually see one of their accessible rooms, I found the atmosphere and beauty of this ocean side resort, as well as its food and service, a MUST book for a return visit.

Belize has SO much potential, and it is growing so rapidly, that they could really seize this opportunity to become a great option for Americans, Europeans and Canadians with disabilities (who are used to being treated as equals and will want, and expect, to have a great inclusive experience). I truly hope they will take the lead of other countries who may not have such laws in place that require access, such as Ecuador and Barbados who have specialized tourism operators (such as Equador For All, Fully Accessible Barbados (FAB)) who know and understand the needs and desires of visitors with disabilities. A simple accessibility survey that can be self-assessed, some basic site reviews and consultations by those who actually know what can work, organized free training for those businesses and providers who want to learn about customer service for people with disabilities provided by tourism boards, and examples of what and how to create inclusive experiences are the road maps to a HUGE opportunity for Belize.

I snorkeled, zip lined, swam, visited the village, and contributed to the economy of Belize. I am only one of MANY of thousands (adults with disabilities or reduced mobility spend an average of $13.6 billion a year on travel in the US alone) with disabilities who would take that opportunity if just a little effort was made to show us we are valued and welcomed.

The paradise that is Belize and the “Everything is Possible” attitude of their exceptionally gracious and genuine people should be available to all. I hope to see great strides made in this country toward accessibility and accommodations for all.

View the full photo Gallery of this trip

beach

 

The following are other service providers who did offer to assist us and provide options:

Cayequest Tours offered us a “Cultural tour visit a Kekchi Maya family and get a hands on experience making corn tortillas, see the jippy jappa palm basket weaving that they do as a family of craftswomen, learn about the family, farm, food and culture, and have a homemade Mayan lunch with the family. Pass several other Mayan and Mestizo communities which might give you some good opportunities for photography. An exclusive tour just for the two of you for 90 USD per person.

Cayequest Tours, Phone: (011-501) 664-8699 (Lyra) and (011-501) 633-6330 (Mark)

Email: cayequest@gmail.com


Dave’s Eco Tours offered us a trip to Altun-Ha Ruins about 40 minutes North of Belize International Airport for $45 USD per person and the Belize Zoo for $125 USD per person.

Elliot Chan, Davesecotours.com


We got an enthusiastic response from Barebones Tours who can make “any arrangements you need to get your wheel chair in and out of the boat. It will fit in Percy's boat. If your husband can lift one side of the wheel chair we can get another guide to go along with Percy to help as well. Im sure you want to go into the jungle to see the Howlers. I think three guys and the good wheels on the chair could get you to see the Howler Monkeys. Its not a long distance but could be a bit muddy if we have rain.

We also have inland tours to Maya Ruins, Birding etc. with our inland guide Christian. I could discuss with him how and what tours we could accommodate mobility imparements.

I looked at your websites and I'm looking forward to working with you making our tour with Percy accessible to guests with disability's.

I hope we are able to give you an ADVENTURE with Percy that you can share with many !!!”

Craig Pearlman, craig@barebonestours.com


Avadon Divers contacted us and said “Our boat is a 4600 Newton with plenty of room to move around, fresh water shower & a bathroom we can have one of our dive master on board assist you whenever necessary.

Curlew Reef 2-Tank Dive/Snorkel – US$155 diver & US$90 Snorkel
Silk Cayes 2-Tank Dive /Snorkel – US$155 diver & US$90 Snorkel
South Water 3-Tank Dive /Snorkel – US$195 diver & US$105 Snorkel

MitchelMuschamp, Avadon Divers www.avadondiversbelize.com


Dtourz offered “specialize in Botany, Ornithology and soft adventure. I can modify my best selling tour for you.  The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is an area protected for the Jaguar.  It's about a 45 minute drive and the first part is a natural history hike.  I teach you about the flora and fauna in the area, while of course looking for wildlife and birds.  This takes about an hour and a half, but we'll go slower with your chair. 

Lunch follows and then its river tubing.  Once on the river you'll be attached to me and tube for a beautiful float on this river. We normally hike to a waterfall, but that's uphill, so I wouldn't recommend it for you.  If you'd like to contact me by phone, my number is (501) 600-2318.  I also offer other tours which can also be modified for you.”

Doyle E Gardiner, DTOURZ Doyle Gardiner, doylegardiner@yahoo.com




Deborah and BillTravAbility was founded in 2007 by Bill Forrester and Deborah Davis.

Our mission is to be agents of change; to inspire people who have never traveled before, to do so, and others to do more. To encourage all cultures of the world to see disability as an integral part of life, and to provide the motivation to create accessible environments that enable inclusion.

For more information on how you can make your business more attractive to the traveler with a disability contact Bill or Deborah.



Further reading on the significance of Inclusive Tourism:

The Economic Model of Inclusive Travel
Changing the demand drivers for the provision of products and services in Inclusive Tourism. The Why and How
.

Travel Industry Structure is a barrier to Inclusive Tourism

For examples of imagery that showcases people with a disability actively involved in leisure and tourism see PhotoAbility.net