Reviving accessible tourism for the disabled in a post-Covid scenario

Originally published in Economic Times’ ET Travel World here

This article includes expert inputs from Yuval Wagner, Founder, Access Israel and Michal Rimon, CEO, Access Israel.

As the world emerges from one of its most uncertain periods in history, we must capitalise on the ensuing flux to deliver positives for some sectors. Accessible tourism, or tourism for people with disabilities (PwD), is one area. The global tourism sector has rarely supported the disabled, or even the elderly who need assistance, despite the sector’s steady growth in the pre-pandemic years. Now might be an opportune time to change that.

The economic rationale

Globally, ~1 billion people (or ~14% of global population) live with disabilities, but many of them have the interest and ability to travel. In the US, PwDs are estimated to spend ~$17 billion p.a. on travel. ~70% of Europe’s PwDs have the finances to travel. There should be reasonable numbers in emerging economies like India too, given the evolving aspirations. Failure to improve the tourism ecosystem and make it accessible for PwDs is a lost business opportunity, apart from the failure of social inclusion! Fortunately, Covid-19 offers an opportunity to move the needle. The UN World Tourism Organization has made the right noise. Not only is it asking tourism centers to cater to the accessibility needs of PwD as they open up from the pandemic, it has also released guidelines that can facilitate accessible tourism. These encompass information and protocols for travel, transport and venues, precautions, support services, etc. It also stresses the economic opportunity of accessible tourism.

The main constraint for accessible tourism in a post-pandemic world is the risk

For instance, social distancing is tough when one needs physical assistance for mobility. That creates a risk for both the traveller and the caregiver. The growing “digital dependence” may inhibit those with hand and visual disability, unless those devices are made accessible with features like an audio option called Voice Over, enlarging options, contrast options and more. But many apps we use daily do not yet have this and hence those with accessibility needs cannot use them properly, creating risk of misuse of their device by others. Pandemic restrictions also pose an issue to communicate with masks for those with hearing disabilities. And there is the business risk of missing a substantial target market because PwDs usually do not travel alone. They travel with family members, friends or caregivers, thus multiplying the economic potential for the tourism business.

Service-providers can tackle such risks by adapting their business models

Develop family-travel packages where the PwD can be accompanied by family members or friends who take care of him/her during the journey. Friends and family imply reduced risk of contagion than external caregivers. If such packages are hard to develop, it may be viable to onboard an assistance-staff dedicated for PwDs, who remain with the traveller for the entire journey and reduce the risk of contagion from multiple assistance-staffers.

The Covid-19 pandemic saw service-providers adapting their systems with flexibility in bookings, safety measures, contact-less infrastructure, etc. Such adaptability must continue for PwDs even after the pandemic, to make travel more convenient for them.

Like air bubbles, we need destination bubbles that are safe to venture to. Destinations that proactively make their infrastructure accessible for travellers with disabilities can gain. The traction they evince might offer an incentive for others to follow suit. The USA, Europe, Australia, Singapore, Israel, Thailand and UAE are amongst those making their destinations accessible. Initiatives in Israel include signs, easy-to-understand instructions, accessible pathways and accessible technological solutions. Interestingly, all Israeli service-providers had to undergo annual training on accessible services even before Covid-19, thus moulding the staff of hotels, tourist attractions, museums, etc. towards accessibility and inclusivity. After Covid-19, accessibility organisations like Access Israel have raised awareness to use the lockdown period for further training and experience-sharing on this subject.

Business models for accessible tourism in a post-Covid scenario might re-focus on off-peak seasons. Not only will it boost tourism inflows during off-seasons, but it will also reduce the risk that a large crowd implies for the PwD and caregivers.

It is also an opportunity to institutionalise the informal workers at the destinations by training and sensitising them to serve PwD travellers. In many developing countries, such staff is often informal and on a need-basis. Reorienting them into a dedicated force for accessible tourism clientele would push skill-development and help institutionalise them.

Last, digital platforms must adapt their interfaces to serve the visually impaired and those with cognitive challenges.

An imperative to de-isolate

The Covid-19 pandemic hit the PwDs hard. Social isolation can be a bane, as many depend daily on caregivers while the lack of mental stimulation for those with cognitive issues accelerates, apart from loneliness. Accessible tourism offers a de-isolation remedy by tackling such ills of social isolation. And while apps and solutions are coming up to offer “virtual tourism” remotely to our homes, we must ensure such technological innovations are inclusive for PwDs right from the beginning.

At the end, revival from the pandemic is an opportune moment to improve the accessible tourism ecosystem. Adaptable players will gain through revenue realisation, destinations’ competitiveness and job creation along with the goal of social inclusion.

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