For many, life with a disability often means having to miss out on some things. But there’s a growing recognition that the tourism industry needs to embrace those who have greater needs. Steve Jones reports.

Philip Stephens was just 18 when, in the summer of 1978, he dived into the sea on Sydney’s northern beaches and broke his neck. The teenager had misjudged the depth of the water, his injuries catastrophic. After months in hospital, Philip returned home a quadriplegic, confined to a wheelchair.

Six years later he took his first overseas holiday, to Vanuatu. Since then, Philip’s globe-trotting exploits have taken him to every corner of the globe, from Fiji to Morocco, Cambodia to Jordan, covering 31 countries in the process. And last November, he completed his greatest achievement to date when, with the help of friends, Philip made it to Machu Picchu.

“That took a hell of a lot of planning, it was crazy,” he told travelBulletin. “Probably the hardest part of travelling is finding a bathroom in a hotel that is suitable or finding accommodation that offers what they say they offer. It can be very frustrating. There is no consistency, so some international standards would be a good idea.”

Philip’s story is truly inspirational and testament to his strength of character and the dedication of those friends and carers who accompany him.

But he is far from alone in living with disabilities while craving to experience what the world has to offer.

So just how accommodating is the travel sector for people like Philip, and those with limited mobility, hearing and sight problems or intellectual difficulties? The picture is a mixed one, with Australia, it seems, lagging behind other parts of the world.

Former Harvey World Travel and Helloworld agent Bill Forrester, who runs disability tour operator Club Tours and Travel and resource portal Travability, described the domestic market as “patchy”.

“So far it has been driven by a few pioneering operators who have accepted accessibility as part of their core development strategy,” he said. “At this stage we are well behind other parts of the world in consistency of product and experiences and looking at accessible tourism from a destination-wide approach. We have isolated operators whereas England, Germany, Catalonia, Canada and the US have more of an integrated model.

“Much of the tourism industry regards accessibility as a cost, not an asset.”

With an estimated 20% of the Australian population living with some form of disability, experts believe the market is a potentially lucrative one. The most recent data — taken from figures compiled in 2003 — found 11% of people who took overnight domestic trips identified themselves as having a disability, generating $4.8 billion for the economy.

Yet if the domestic industry got its act together, it could share in a $8.7b bonanza. That potential is only expected to increase as the population continues to age and the consumer-empowering National Disability Insurance Scheme rolls out nationally.

Meanwhile, Tourism Satellite Account figures, again dating back more than a decade, show the accessible market made up less than 7% of international travel from Australia.

Simon Darcy, a professor at Sydney’s University of Technology and a specialist in sport, tourism and diversity management, said the travel and tourism sector had not opened its eyes to the possibilities.

“I’ve done a lot of work here and overseas and a great number of tourism providers have given absolutely no thought to consumer needs in this area,” he told travelBulletin. “It pretty much gets stuck at ‘oh, well there are accessible rooms’ and that’s mainly for people with mobility disability. “They haven’t thought about people who have vision impairment or who are deaf or those people with intellectual disabilities and what their holiday experience needs are.

“The industry has taken an adversarial, combative approach rather than an innovative solution-finding approach. If they can’t see the opportunity in front of their face, that’s not a good indicator of an industry that is willing to learn, grow and develop experiences beyond what they are already offering.”

Last year the UN World Tourism Organisation designated accessible tourism as the theme for World Tourism Day. And while there were events across the world, there was nothing to mark the occasion in Australia, said Darcy, himself a wheelchair user.

Peter Negri, managing director of specialist agency/operator Club Mates Travel, said his firm, and his guests, were confronted with barriers of accessibility “every day”.

“We are going to Darwin shortly but there is not one wheelchair accessible vehicle you can hire,” he said. “I have contacted so many organisations but I am hitting a brick wall everywhere I go.”

But it would be unfair to paint an overly negative picture, and an hour-long webinar staged in March by Tourism Australia was a step in the right direction in terms of raising awareness and educating operators.

Furthermore, Live, Work and Play, a two-day accessibility conference organised by the NSW Government, took place last month (May) and included streams dedicated to tourism.

According to Darcy and Forrester, who both presented at Live, Work and Play, there are wonderful local examples of inclusive tourism, from Quicksilver Barrier Reef Tours, whale watching operation Jervis Bay Wild on the New South Wales south coast, and events such as Vivid Sydney which is offering services, facilities and aids for people with disabilities, including audio descriptions for the blind.

One of the common issues raised by disability advocates is a fundamental lack of understanding of people’s needs.

Cathy Boyce, co-owner of Port Melbourne-based disability specialist agency and operator Leisure Options, said the company had spent many years building a network of suppliers it could rely on.

Among the problems is the lack of any mandatory and consistent standards, she said.

“Every provider will say they are accessible but only half, or less, would be truly accessible,” said Boyce, who has a background in nursing. “Accessibility is such a subjective concept and unless you have lived, worked or had a disability, it is hard to understand what people really need. “We organise group travel and have rented houses which say they are accessible. So in we come with wheelchairs and we find there are steps to get through the front door. They say, ‘oh, yes, but it’s accessible once you’re inside’. That’s not very helpful. People don’t understand what accessible means.

“We hope one day there will be standards or regulations so providers can earn an accessibility status, similar to the green tick in tourism.”

Jervis Bay Wild — one of the companies singled out by Forrester — took action after staff kept turning away people with disabilities. The entire operation has now been designed to accommodate their needs.

“We had many customers who just couldn’t participate so one family member would have to stay behind while the others enjoyed a cruise,” office manager Elizabeth Abood said. “We told Brendan [Aulsebrook, the director] that we just don’t have the facilities and he decided that yes, he would purchase a new vessel. It’s been fantastic.”

Jervis Bay Wilds’ new ship, Port Venture, also has a sea crane which enables people with disabilities to be lowered into the boom netting and enjoy an experience previously only accessible to the able bodied.

If domestic travel still has some way to go to become inclusive, international travel comes with additional stress and another set of obstacles, most obviously with flights.

Airlines have hardly covered themselves in glory over the years with too many stories highlighting the shabby treatment of disabled passengers. Yet despite those headline-grabbing tales, progress is being made.

Last month, Virgin Australia said it had become the first Asia Pacific airline to introduce an in-flight entertainment interface for vision-impaired travellers, while increasing numbers of airlines have adopted the Qantas-inspired Eagle hoists which lift passengers into seats.

Forrester described Qantas as “one of the best” in terms of buying equipment and enhancing its customer service, with most of the European carriers also “pretty good”.

“Certain airlines are bad and it is not limited to full service versus discount” he said. Of all the industry sectors, cruising has traditionally been regarded as the most accessible for people with disabilities or limited mobility.

Yet while the cruise industry overall does “reasonably well”, Forrester pointed the finger at smaller luxury operators as the “notable exception”.

“That is really counter intuitive given the age of their client base,” he said. “I will lump river cruising into this category and they are the worst of all, just a tad in front of coach touring.”

Royal Caribbean Cruises Australia and New Zealand managing director Adam Armstrong said the line had welcomed “thousands of guests with special needs”.

Its ships supplied a range of services and aids to cater for all disabilities, he said, including Assisted Listening Systems (ALS) in all main theatres, sign language interpreters, lifts for pools and whirlpools and braille “wherever possible”. Guide dogs are also welcome while specially-fitted state rooms provide larger bathrooms and support equipment with wider doors, accessible balconies and roll-in showers.

“We continue to research and invest in making sure our current fleet and new ships are as accessible as possible for all our guests,” Armstrong said, adding that accessible baths feature in junior suites on its Quantum class ships, including Ovation of the Seas.

Cathy Boyce, from Leisure Options — who singled out Disneyland as travel’s most disabled-friendly company — described cruise ships as “phenomenal” but said tendering is the major issue, with the South Pacific among the problematic destinations.

Armstrong admitted that selecting destinations where ships berth alongside ports would be “more enjoyable”. He added it was “currently working with local tourism providers in the South Pacific and New Zealand” to improve its accessible shore excursion options.

New Insight Vacations chief executive Ulla Hefel Bohler, previously director of operations for Insight, Trafalgar, Luxury Gold and Costsaver, told travelBulletin that all its brands “embrace diversity” and “welcome guests with special needs and disabilities”.

She detailed aids for the hard of hearing which include reading material and Vox Audio Guides while the use of tablets with speech-to-text recognition software is also being trialed.

Yet none of its coaches can accommodate people confined to wheelchairs. “Our coaches do not have fitted ramps or hoists so the only type of disability that makes coach touring generally unsuitable is reduced mobility where the guest is unable to get on and off the coach unaided or with a little assistance,” Bohler said. “Guests with reduced mobility need to be able to climb the steps of the coach.”

Bohler recommended people needing physical assistance “travel with a companion to get the most out of their holiday”. She added that tour directors reviewed itineraries and offered alternative activities if planned excursions presented a problem for some guests. Europe could often throw up particular issues given that many cities are so old.

“Italy is the destination that comes to mind in terms of not being very accessible-friendly. With Venice being particularly difficult with the bridges and boats,” she said. “That said, we’ve had many guests with walking difficulties and also wheelchair users whose dream it was to experience Venice, and they did.”

On the flip said, while its national parks can be difficult to navigate, Bohler identified the US as particularly accessible and “disabled-friendly”.

And what of adventure tourism? Specialist operators, such as New Zealand-based MakingTrax, build bespoke, individual itineraries, but for mainstream companies, difficulties arise.

Intrepid Group responsible tourism manager Liz Manning said its brands did all they can to meet the needs of travellers with special needs but conceded it was difficult to accommodate someone with mobility issues on scheduled departures.

“They may require more time or assistance. That’s obviously on trips which require a high level of physical fitness, but it’s also something we need to consider on trips that use a lot of public transport,” she said.

“Unfortunately, the infrastructure in many countries does not adequately meet the needs of their citizens or travellers with special needs. Many airlines and airports are not equipped to meet the needs of many travellers, either in boarding or deplaning or during their flight. That may mean we need disabled travellers to have a companion who can assist them.

“We’re constantly looking to improve our operations to ensure we’re providing our travellers with the best travel experience, and over the next two to three years will be focusing on improving the inclusiveness and accessibility of our trips to keep pace with the changing needs of our travellers.”

Manning admitted that, as an industry “we need to be doing more to make travel accessible to a wide range of individual needs”.

Ensuring travel is accessible and inclusive is a complex and sensitive area, without simple and straightforward solutions. According to Forrester it will need leadership from national, state and local tourism bodies to drive awareness, improve product marketing and generally shift mindsets.

The industry perhaps needs the “can do” attitude and philosophy of Philip Stephens who is preparing his next adventure, to Greece. “It’s all in the planning,” he said. “Nothing is easy, but it’s worth the effort.”

Accessing the world

By any measure, Luke Johnston is an intrepid traveller. He explored Myanmar before it was popular, travelled in Syria before the war and discovered Cuba before the sanctions were eased.

The past decade has taken him to places like Uruguay, Argentina, China, Lebanon and Jordan, and by October he’ll be setting out for Iran.

But as a quadriplegic, he knows how much a wheelchair changes the entire travel process.

“Accommodation is the trickiest thing,” Johnston said. “In Burma we stayed in a hotel that was supposedly wheelchair accessible, but when we got there it had 12 stairs. The staff ended up carrying me like I was the Queen of Sheba.”

Other hotels failed to offer adequate bathrooms, he said, despite claiming to be wheelchair accessible.

“So they might have the shower over a bath in a supposedly wheelchair-accessible room, which is a massive problem and it happens all the time.”

As a result, Johnston said travelling required enormous amounts of preparation and research.

“It takes so many emails — to find out what the bathroom is like, whether there’s room to turn the chair, and whether the hallways or doors are too narrow,” he said. “I get every hotel to email me pictures.”

Airlines mostly catered well to his level of disability, Johnston said, but not without pitfalls, as he discovered in Cuba at a terminal without air bridges.

“In true Cuban style there were about 15 ground-crew helping, all shouting,” he said. “They decided to pull me up the stairs to the plane and managed to tip me over the side and onto the tarmac.

“Thankfully I wasn’t hurt, but I was mortally embarrassed — all the other passengers were waiting to get on and it happened in front of them, it was humiliating.”

Despite set-backs, Johnston said he found most tourism businesses helpful, like the villa owners in Bali who cut up old deck chairs to build ramps for him.

“We often go to places where they’ve never seen wheelchair travellers before which is quite exciting, and the reactions we get from locals are really good mostly,” he said. “People come to your aid, there’s always someone to help.”

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