According to the World Tourism Organization, accessible tourism enables people with special access needs – such as mobility, vision, hearing and cognitive, among others - to function independently, with equality and dignity, thanks to an offer of appropriately-designed tourism products, services, and environments.
Around 15% of the world's population, close to 1 billion people, live with some form of special need. Moreover, the demand for accessibility goes beyond people with functional diversity – it often includes the elderly, a segment which represents an increasing percentage of the population in most parts of the globe. Likewise, the companions of both groups should be considered as consumers of this tourist offer.
To comply with equality standards, accessibility must be a central element of any responsible and sustainable tourism policy. To this end, international institutions such as the UNWTO have established guidelines to ensure accessibility for the entire population to tourism products and services, such as, for example, the UNWTO Inclusive Recovery Guide, a document which suggests measures for the entire tourism value chain to become more accessible.
An underserved segment
Investing in accessible tourism is essential to ensuring the ethical inclusion and fundamental rights of people with disabilities.
According to the Adecco Foundation - a non-profit organization that helps people with difficulties access the labor market - 56% of this population segment does not go on vacation due to lack of accessibility in the tourism offer, highlighting how far we are from becoming a fully inclusive society.
In Spain alone, the potential market for accessible tourism is sized at almost 6 million citizens, considering both people with disabilities and accompanying persons. According to the Foundation, if facilities and especially transfer services were adapted, it is estimated that more than 100,000 new jobs could be created in the country.
In addition, greater investment in accessibility would promote senior tourism, which could help reduce the seasonality of the industry, since this segment is more likely to travel outside of the summer months. This would mean higher revenues for the sector during less dynamic tourist months, the continuity of jobs, savings in unemployment costs, and the maintenance of social security salary contributions, among other benefits.
Challenges to equal accessibility
While it is true that much progress has been made in recent years, there are still major challenges for the development of accessible tourism.
Important deficiencies have been found in the "accessibility chain.” The adaptation of areas like transport services, accessible urban environments, or clear visual markers are not enough to guarantee complete accessibility. All stages of a journey must be considered and adapted, from the initial planning of a trip through to the return to home of the traveler.
Some persistent problems for the segment are:
- Lack of information: establishments and destinations should include indications of the services available, in a simple and easily understandable manner, and provide such information in inclusive formats, such as audio and/or Braille.
- Inadequate booking systems: Booking platforms should provide information on the accessibility levels of the different options available. Likewise, these systems should be designed so that any tourist can interact with them independently.
- Training: there is a significant lack of training for tourism personnel to support this type of visitor. Workers should be prepared to understand and address the needs of customers with disabilities in order to improve their experience at the destination.
- Costs and quality: accessible facilities usually involve higher costs for tourists and do not always reach the same level of quality offered to other customers.
A representative example of these obstacles can be found in the hotel industry. A study carried out by the accessibility solution provider Mobility Mojo concluded that more than half of hotels did not offer accessible room bookings, while in more than 20% of establishments, staffers reached over the phone were unable to provide accessibility information about the hotel they worked at.
Initiatives and actions
Fortunately, there are plenty of proposals in this area and every year more and more destinations are investing in accessible practices.
Below, we analyze the 3 winning initiatives of the FiturNext 2022 Challenge, a tourism-services contest whose topic this year was accessible tourism. Participants were asked the following: “How can tourism contribute to a more accessible society?”
The purpose of this digital platform is to publicize the accessible tourism offer, providing rigorous and updated information on the accessibility conditions of hotels, restaurants, museums, and adapted transport, among others. TUR4all currently covers Spain, Portugal, Germany, India, Colombia, and Peru, and is managed by accessibility experts.
Albastar is an airline whose mission is to understand the needs of all passengers and ensure the best possible flight experience. The company allows people who require special assistance to travel comfortably, including people with reduced mobility or wheelchairs, the blind, the deaf, passengers travelling with a guide dog or customers with respiratory problems, for example. In addition, 90% of the crew is trained in accessibility.
Finally, the non-profit NGO COCEMFE organizes accessible trips for people with disabilities, including the planning of activities, transportation, and accommodation. It also provides training, awareness-raising, and information & advice regarding accessible tourism for public administrations, among many other initiatives.
Travelers with disabilities often do not enjoy the same conditions as other visitors. Unfortunately, the tourism industry is still not sufficiently adapted to provide experiences on equal terms for this population segment.
However, many organizations and destinations are investing in this type of tourism in order to ensure an inclusive society by developing accessible proposals such as better and more diverse types of signage and notifications, physical accessibility, and improved training for tourism employees.
There is still much to be done in terms of accessibility, however incremental improvements continue to open tourism opportunities for disabled travelers.