Wheelchair on a jetty in Cairns

Accessible Tourism – A critical part of a staged tourism restart

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe we have seen the world’s tourism and hospitality industries decimated. Efforts to control the virus have seen worldwide lockdowns, international and domestic border restrictions, and the virtual shutdown of world aviation routes.

Recently, there have been significant second wave outbreaks in the US, Australia, New Zealand the UK and Europe, which may be exacerbated with the onset of the northern hemisphere winter.

COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease without an effective cure or vaccine. The industry is faced with the fact that neither are likely to be developed in the near term.

As a result, tourism restarts are likely to be slow and staged with social distancing becoming a normal part of doing business. International borders, with the exception of “airbridges” or inter-country “bubbles”, will be the last to open so for the tourism industry domestic and local tourism will be the lifeblood of the industry for the foreseeable future. We must also recognize that the restart process will be fluid. Relaxation of restrictions is likely to be followed up with the reimposition of lockdowns or reduced numbers in response to second and third waves of infections. International borders may be subject to sudden closure making travel planning difficult if not impossible. Future bookings are likely to be extremely weak in light of the uncertainty.

Why is the Accessible Tourism sector important to the tourism recovery?
Wheelchair on an airboat in the Florida Everglades
Tying down the wheelchair with rachet straps

Since 2014 several pieces of research around the world have placed the value of the market at between 14% and 20% of the total tourism spend. The growth rate is tracking at three times the rate of tourism as a whole. It is being fuelled by the aging and retiring baby boomer generation. Most western countries have a very similar age distribution. Research by McKinsey & Company in the US found that the Baby Boomer generation controls 60% of total wealth and 40% of total expenditure and in areas such as hospitality and leisure the spend was 50%. When looking at that population segment, at age 65, 40% of the group has an age-related disability and by age 75 that climbs to 60%. Extrapolating the spending power and the disability statistics the market is worth 25% of the total tourism spend. The retiree market has also changed with the Baby Boomer generation. This generation is very different from the generations that came before it. It was born into optimism and was also adventurous. It was the Baby Boomers who first backpacked their way around the world, first invented adventure tourism and trekking, and lived by their Lonely Planet guides. The sheer size of the generation meant that they always had the market power to demand products that suited their needs, after all, it was this generation that caused Levis Strauss to alter the cut of their jeans to cater for a middle-aged spread when they turned 40. As retirees, that adventurous spirit remains as does the expectation that the tourism industry will develop a range of inspiring products and experiences that suit their expectations and their aging needs.

Over the last ten years, we have also seen major developments in adaptive equipment. Everything from off-road wheelchairs, sit skis, advanced hearing augmentation, visual wayfinding, etc that are opening up new opportunities for people with a disability.

This generation has also been risk takers and are, therefore, the likely generation to resume travel when COVID-19 has subsided to “manageable” levels and are also the most likely to take up a vaccine option when it becomes available. Again, this generation was brought up in an era when vaccines for international travel were the norm.

Tourism Product is changing
A elderly couple in Skagway Alaska with a mobility walker

Tourism is evolving as world attitudes change. The mass coach tour and set itineraries are giving way to more individualized itineraries and small group touring. The world is far more environmentally and culturally aware and expects tourism to embrace cultural diversity, environmental sensitivity, and be responsible. The old adage of take only photographs and leave only footprints has now developed into a total responsibility approach that preserves and nurtures both local environments and cultures. The tourism industry is adept at change and adept at providing small group, highly interactive experiences.

In addition to the changing nature of the expectation to create unique experiences, the industry has the benefit of over 30 years of disability discrimination legislation around the world and accessible building codes and construction. Facilities exist all over the world that can be packaged into accessible tourism experiences. While there is still work to be done, the opportunity is to develop information systems that can tell prospective travellers with a disability what is available on a destination wide basis and to develop accessible tourism experiences and itineraries.

How does Accessible Tourism aid with the tourism restart
Ramps to a cathedral in Prague

As stated earlier, the tourism industry will restart slowly with reduced numbers and in many cases with a reduced catchment area. Initially, the market will also be more spontaneous with short term bookings. Long lead time detailed itineraries will be hard to sell during recovery. To be profitable, operators will need to concentrate on high-value small group tourism that provides quality and meaningful experiences. Tailorisation gives operators a real chance to look at their offerings and the opportunities to incorporate accessibility as part of their core products and services. Regions have a chance to cooperate and build accessible itineraries to maximize the time spent in a region by a smaller number of people. Social distancing requirements will make it easier to plan accessible routes and create the spaces needed to cater to a wide range of disability groups including those of the autism spectrum. One of the greatest barriers to accessible tourism has always been air travel. In the recovery phase, most tourism is going to be local or domestic making the accessible tourism market a key opportunity. Travellers with a disability tend to stay longer and spend more than the general traveling population which is a key incentive for tourism operators to actively market their accessibility.

For many tourism operators, catering to the accessible tourism market is extremely cost effective. Many will already have the physical assets to cater for the market, the missing link is often the detailed information required to allow a potential visitor to make their own informed decisions as to whether a facility or experience is suitable for their needs. The downtime period many operators are facing at the moment is the perfect chance to evaluate what facilities they have and what disability groups they can cater for. It should be remembered that of the total disability market only 8% are full-time wheelchair users. Those with hearing impairments, reduced vision, and autism all require different facilities. It isn’t all about ramps and accessible toilets. Tourism operators cater for a variety of needs currently and some specialize in certain interest groups. There is no reason why an operator can’t develop specialized products catering for any one particular disability group. Nature, in particular, has major opportunities for the blind or vision impaired with the sensory experiences it offers. Co-designing experiences for travellers with a disability is no different from designing cultural experiences with indigenous groups.

Adding information to an individual operator or destination website is not a difficult or costly thing to do, especially in the current environment where websites need to be continually updated with COVID-19 information and social distancing requirements.

The market for Accessible Tourism is significant. It is potentially 25% of the total tourism spend, especially for local and domestic tourism. The market is extremely loyal and will return on a regular basis if it is comfortable with the experiences. The social network of Accessible Tourism is extremely strong. Great experiences will lead to great referrals. The strength of the offering, like all tourism, depends greatly on co-operation to create a range of experiences within a destination region. One great motel with an accessible bedroom doesn’t create a good holiday experience.

The key steps to making Accessible Tourism part of your COVID-19 restart process
  1. Use the downtime to review the current facilities on offer that are accessible, both at individual operator and destination wide. That includes accommodation, dining, parks and gardens, attractions, and tour operators.
  2. Prepared detailed accessibility guides both at operator and destination wide levels and publish them on both operator and destination websites. Don’t fall into the trap of saying something is fully accessible. Every person with a disability has a different set of needs and capabilities. What is not accessible for some may be an adventure for others. Say what is actually there and provide good photographs and let a potential visitor make up their own mind. The important thing is if people don’t know what is there they won’t come.
  3. Co-design experiences with local disability groups. Often operators and destination managers forget adventure activities and limit the opportunities that travellers with a disability may want to experience even if they don’t appear to be “accessible”
  4. Look closely at community infrastructure, things like beach matting or beach wheelchairs can open a market for the whole region.
  5. Look at marketing opportunities and include people with a disability in mainstream marketing material. Use existing marketing channels that already have a following, but include accessible terms in the copy to improve Google reach. Ensure that accessibility data on regional websites is included on individual tourism operator web sites to increase the overall ratings of your region. As marketing for accessible tourism is no different to marketing for any other form of tourism, be wary of “specialist” sites charging for accessible tourism listings. Many do not have a good market penetration amongst potential visitors. As for any form of marketing the cost per thousand is critical as is monitoring and evaluating referrals. If you wouldn’t trust your general marketing to charities or social enterprises don’t do it for accessible tourism without applying the same economic rigours to its value as you would any other new marketing channel.
  6. Seek professional advice from organisations recognised as accessible tourism specialists.
  7. Most importantly don’t be scared to play in the accessible tourism market, co-design, and seek and learn from feedback. As with all tourism activities the greatest joy comes from seeing visitors enjoying their experiences and leaving changed in some way.
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