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Accessibility does not equal Inclusive Tourism

Inclusive Tourism is defined as:

“Inclusive Tourism” - “the application of the seven principles of Universal Design to the products, services, and policies of the tourism industry at all stages of their lifecycle from conception to retirement and introduction of a replacement”

There has been a lot of discussion about Universal Design in relation to built infrastructure as a means to a fully inclusive Tourism Industry. In the main though those discussions are still about access and that in itself will not necessarily change the underlying culture of the Tourism Industry. The definition above expands the concept of Universal Design to the services and policies of the Industry. In order to understand how to make that definition a part of the Tourism Industry Culture it is important to understand the history of accessibility legislation, how it has affected tourism operations, how the industry is structured and finally where and when the purchase decisions are made.

Defining accessibility and compliance
wheelchair on beachThe ADA, and the various other Acts around world, forced built infrastructure to become more accessible by setting standards for minimum compliance. For the first time rights of access were enshrined into the building code. We must remember, however, that those standards were based on the principles of Universal design, which at their heart were conceived to be innovative. They were principles to encourage future generations of designers and operators to think about access, not in terms of the physical infrastructure, but to think of design in terms of making those environments inclusive. At its core, true inclusion should just blend in not be a piece of infrastructure with blue and white disabled signs plastered all over it. 20 years on from the introduction of accessibility legislation there is a lot of very good accessible infrastructure, but there is still a dearth of information, and where that information exists is devoid of useful detail to allow people with disabilities to make an informed travel decision.
The very nature of compliance tends to lead to a real disconnect between those who are designing and building something to those who are finally operating and marketing it. Compliance with building regulations etc are all done in the design and building phase. By the time the operators come in to run any establishment everything is already there. Often the reason for the accessible facilities are not fully understood and even less understood are the needs of the disabled traveler. Further these facilities are often regarded as dead money.

The disabled traveller is seen as a problem not a customer.
There are two key issues as to why this culture exists within the Tourism Industry.

The first is that the size of the market is not understood.
In June of 2011, the World Health Organisation and the World Bank released the results of the first ever global study on disability. The report estimates that more than one billion people experience some form of disability. Most studies and reports on disability stop there, however, from an economic point of view the raw data on disability numbers is not the true figure. Research done in Australia by Simon Darcy puts the multiplier effect at three when those directly associated with a person with a disability is taken into account. Those directly affected are family, friends and work colleges. If a person with a disability cannot access a business’s services, like a restaurant, resort or transport then the entire group cannot access those services. In economic terms over 4 billion people worldwide are directly affected by disability which is over one third of the world’s population.


Of more significance is the ageing population and the effect of the retiring Baby Boomer generation.
US research by McKinsey & Company predicts that by 2015, the baby boomer generation will command almost 60 percent of net U.S. wealth and 40 percent of spending. In many categories, like travel, boomers will represent over 50 percent of consumption. The impact on the Inclusive Travel sector is significant as over 40% of them will be retiring with some form of disability, raising the total value of direct expenditure to the Inclusive Tourism sector to over 25% of the market by 2020.

The second is that “Disability” is seen as a single group.
ramp to poolPeople with a disability are present in all sectors in roughly the same proportion as the general population. They are not like the backpackers, adventure tourists, luxury travelers or the Gay and Lesbian sector. The common misconception is that the needs of all people with a disability are the same. In one sense that conception has been reinforced by the social model of disability which, in defining the social barriers, has concentrated on a narrow sub set of physical access requirements largely limited to car parks, toilets building access and hotel rooms. A disability, in reality is just a different level of ability. We are not all equal in a number if ways. Physical ability is just one set in the total capability set of the human being. If we do take physical ability as the cornerstone of the push for greater accessibility then we need to put it into context. Looking at the travel industry as a case in point. Travellers vary enormously in their physical capabilities and their holiday patterns reflect that diversity. Whether that holiday is climbing a Himalayan peak, walking New Zealand’s, Milford Track, visiting the wine region of the Napa Valley or relaxing on a Caribbean Island that is a personal choice. The tourism industry is adept at discerning and catering for those wide ranges of choices, however, we have categorized a disability, through the medical and now social models as something different and around that built a set of preconceptions that shields it from a market view.
evergladesDisability is often regarded as a homogenous concept. The opposite is true. As with the general population ability is on a continuum.
The travel industry has evolved to service its market. Hotels and resorts offer a wide range of products and services, from standard hotel rooms, king size rooms, rooms with different views and prices tags, business suites, family suites and self catering rooms. The list goes on. These rooms have been developed to service market demand or at least perceived market demand. Because their existence is customer driven the industry has developed very specialised and detailed ways to present such information. Each feature is listed in detail as a selling point for the product. Often rooms further up the price line has its additional features listed only to entice the up-sell.
Because disability is seen as a “single” category the industry has failed to understand the varying needs of the disabled traveller and as a consequence failed to develop or market even its existing infrastructure to service or attract the disabled traveller. While it clearly understands the needs of a business traveller for a writing desk with internet connectivity and a quiet “executive” breakfast bar it does not appreciate the need for a wheelchair traveller to know the bed and toilet seat heights or indeed the desire of a business wheelchair user for that same writing desk to have knee clearance and a power point a metre above the floor.
The same issue manifests itself in operations, again because those needs are not understood housekeeping staff who reposition furniture moved by the customer often at great effort.

Industry Structure.
Much of the advocacy around Inclusive Tourism has been aimed at the infrastructure owners. The anti discrimination legislation around the world targets the same group. Those infrastructure providers are hotel and resort owners, attractions, coach and bus companies, train operators and airlines.
Unfortunately travel and tourism is not sold that way and seldom do individual purchasers put their holidays together individually on a piece by piece nature. The one exception to that tends to be the disabled traveller, who is forced to go to the source due to lack of information available through the distribution channels.
The industry has three broad levels . See the following diagram

Industry structure

We have already stated that there is a disconnect even at the infrastructure owners level because they do not see the link between the assets they have been “forced” to provide and the emerging market demand. That issue is exacerbated by the supply chain of the tourism industry.
The wholesalers and tour operators package components to create offerings to the retail sector of the industry. The very nature of the packaging involves homogenous offerings and block bookings of room types. Accessible rooms are never included in the blocks and hence never included in wholesaler destination brochures or included in tour packages. Further tour operators do not market their tours as “Inclusive” do not block any accessible rooms and do not schedule accessible coaches into their itineraries even though the rooms exist and the coach equipment is available.
At the retail level the industry is driven by targets and override commissions. All of the major retail chains, whether company owned or franchised, work on preferred supplier arrangements. Only the major wholesalers and tour companies can afford the cooperative marketing fees associated with those cooperative arrangements or the level of override commissions demanded. Disability specialist do not have the resources to gain entry to the major retailers.
The online market is much the same although in the United States the Expedia case changed the landscape in at least forcing it to offer booking and search facilities for accessible hotel rooms. It is interesting to note, however, that only applies within the United States and Expedia does not offer that service outside the US.

ostrichThe average retail travel consultant has no knowledge of the requirements of the disabled traveller and even if they do the information is now too far removed from the operators for it to be available. Most disabled travellers are aware of that and either find specialist agencies or go direct and put their own packages together. The major change steaming up on the tourism industry is the retiring Baby Boomers, who will not identify themselves with the disability sector and will expect the facilities and services to be readily available through the distribution channels they have used throughout their lives.

Cultural change
The size of the market is significant estimated to already be worth 11% of the total tourism spend and estimated to grow to 25% of the market by 2020, that is a short 8 years away.
There is significant cultural change needed within the industry. That change has to occur at all levels but most importantly at the wholesaler and tour operator level. That section of the industry drives what the consumer ultimately sees as packaged product, what the retail agents offer and what training is given to the retail industry. Until such time as the wholesalers regard Inclusive Tourism as a viable market it will not be adopted into the mainstream tourism culture. Even the recent changes to the ADA reporting requirements will not filter into the wholesale brochures unless their is a concerted effort to build the business case and create awareness of the market size.

“In Mexico, before the wheel was invented, gangs of slaves had to carry giant stones through the jungle and up the mountains, while their children pulled their toys on tiny rollers. The slaves made the toys, but for centuries failed to make the connection.”

Peter Brook

Invention of the wheel

Illustration by Hannah Van de Water

It is important to concentrate future awareness efforts not just at the ultimate operators but at the rest of the industry. Training courses aimed at the resorts as well as accessibility guides on inclusive design will not change what is offered for sale unless the same economic message is driven through the entire industry.
Inclusive Tourism has been adopted more quickly where it is driven from above as a whole of government approach. Where it becomes tourism policy for a country, as has recently been evidence with Barbados, or a tourism region then adoption is rapid as the economic story is sold to the industry as a whole. The economic message changes perception from a compliance problem to gaining competitive advantage challenge, the latter will always create innovation in design and customer awareness and service.
Major wholesalers, tour operators and the major retail chains need to get their heads out of the sand and see the size of the looming Inclusive Tourism market and the value it can potentially add to those players in the market who get it right.

For a full explanation of the Inclusive Tourism business case see our article "An Economic Model of Disability"

And for some statistics on the growing Baby Boomer Market see: "Inclusive Tourism - An Economic Imperative driven by the Baby Boomer Generation"