Accessible Tourism has to be Customer, not Compliance Focused


It is time to understand that a traveler with a disability is not a risk management problem, but a customer who has the same desire as any other traveler – to experience and participate in something they choose for themselves and for which they exchange valuable currency to do so.

Tourism has often been described as selling dreams and indeed that is what the majority of the industry attempts to do by developing products and services that give clients an “experience.” The industry has evolved to develop a vast array of experiences that cover all aspirations and budgets. When it comes to Accessible Tourism, however, we see a major disconnect from the customer and instead a compliance mentality towards accessibility and risk management.

“Travelers with a disability are like any other group of people; with their own set of dreams and aspirations. To attract those customers, tourism operators need to start reflecting them in their marketing materials.” – Bill Forrester Co-Founder, Travability.

What do you See?

apple - Accessible Tourism has to be Customer, not Compliance Focused

Our mind is conditioned to recognize an apple from the outline, but what comes to mind when we see the international symbol for disability?

wheel chair - Accessible Tourism has to be Customer, not Compliance Focused

Again, our mind is conditioned based on perception largely created by the media and a lack of first hand knowledge. When most people think of disability they think in terms of a physical disability and its limitations. We have been conditioned to think in terms of the “medical model” of disability. That implies that a person with a disability is seen as passive, not involved and in need of care and special facilities. We seldom think of them as the decision maker or group leader.

The tourism industry in particular, fails to see a traveler with a disability as an active participant. By not seeing them as a customer, the industry has not considered their needs and aspirations as part of the product development cycle.

That Perception, is Not the Reality.

For the next 4 minutes lets have a look at the reality with “Whats Our Scene”

Disability is often regarded as a homogeneous concept. The common misconception is that the needs of all people with a disability are the same. The opposite is true. As with the general population ability is on a continuum.

Disability is the only minority group anyone can join in an instant.

People with a disability are present in all sectors in roughly the same proportion as the general population. At the lower end of the age spectrum it is often the more adventurous and active people that acquire a disability through an accident. They are not like the backpackers, adventure tourists, luxury travelers or the Gay and Lesbian sector. In one sense that perception 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 of 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. Travelers 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.

continuum - Accessible Tourism has to be Customer, not Compliance Focused

So What Does the Market Look Like?

Video filmed on the Athabasca Glacier with Brewsters fully Accessible Snow Explorer

There are three key messages that come out of that video:

Joanne Kelly – “This is very cool. I was actually a bit nervous to come up here”

This is a particularly important message, as the travel decision is critically based on knowing what to expect on arrival and whether of not a venue, hotel, attraction or destination generally is suitable for their needs. The best facilities in the world will not be utilized if people do not know they exist and are not comfortable with their condition in advance.

Craig Doherty – “It is an enormous market, enormous yet enormously under serviced”

The following analysis will look at the market size and how it is growing with the aging population and the retiring Baby Boomers.

Michael Hannon – “We do not keep separate statistics………. what really is important is that everyone is afforded the opportunity”

In creating the Ice Explorer Brewsters recognized core element of Accessible Tourism, everyone should be treated as an equal and have the opportunity to enjoy the experience together with their family and friends. Travel is as much about creating the memories as it is about the moment itself. Accessible Tourism has to embrace that fact and realize that the average person with a disability travels with 3 friends or family members and wants to share the experience, not sit back and watch.

The Market is Already Big and Growing

Australian research conducted by Dr. Simon Darcy found the following:

  • Some 88% of people with disability take a holiday each year that accounted for some 8.2 million overnight trips.
  • The average travel group size for people with a disability is 2.8 people for a domestic overnight trip and 3.4 for a day trip.
  • There is a myth that the accessible tourism market does not spend because of economic circumstance and are a significant proportion of each travel market segment.
  • They travel on a level comparable with the general population for domestic overnight and day trips.

The total tourism expenditure attributable to the group was $8bn per year or 11% of overall tourism expenditure.

The population is aging in every western country and the Baby Boomer Generation started retiring in Jan 2011.

US research by McKinsey & Company predicts that by 2015, the baby boomer generation will command:

  • 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 the Inclusive Tourism sector to over 25% of the market by 2020.

25% of the Market by 2020

Of every person who has lived to be 65 from the beginning of recorded history, two-thirds are alive today.

aging - Accessible Tourism has to be Customer, not Compliance Focused

Matching Accessible Facilities, Aspirations and the Market

After more than 20 years of disability rights legislation and accessibility requirements built into building codes there is a plethora of good infrastructure available, however, people will not utilize a service they are not aware of.

Unlike the movie Field of Dreams, where the line was

“Build it and they will Come”,

in providing accessible facilities the line is

“Build it, Understand it, Market it and they will Come and Keep Coming!”

The travel industry has evolved to service a continually changing 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 specialized 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 traveler and as a consequence failed to develop or market even its existing infrastructure to service or attract the disabled traveler. While it clearly understands the needs of a business traveler for a writing desk with Internet connectivity and a quiet “executive” breakfast bar it does not appreciate the need for a wheelchair traveler 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 meter 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.

The Baby Boomers will change the perception of disability and except services that cater for a greater level of disability. More than any generation before them they will expect adjustments to allow them to fulfill their travel aspirations with no hassle or fuss.

Those organizations, or destinations that take the time to understand the needs of the disabled traveler will gain a competitive advantage over the rest of the industry. It will take a mindset change to start viewing a disabled traveler as an individual customer and to start developing products and service standards to encourage their custom.

Further, the use of imagery that includes people with a disability in mainstream marketing materials send a very clear and powerful message that a destination not only welcomes them, but wants their business.

The Little Things can make a Huge Difference

Codification of accessibility reinforces the compliance mindset. Travel is all about creating new experiences through innovation which exceed expectations and delight the customer. It is the little things, that can never be codified, that make an everlasting impression on the disabled traveler and keep them coming back for more.

  • Providing seating in reception and waiting areas
  • Large type registration forms and menus
  • Providing large faced analogue clocks
  • Lower reception counters
  • Walking stick holders on reception desks and service counters
  • Marked barrier free paths of travel
  • Raised toilet flush buttons
  • Levers rather than door knobs
  • Step free garden paths
  • Straws avaialble for wine tasting
  • Information on accessible local cafes, bars and attractions
  • Accessible garden furniture

Examples of True Inclusion in Travel

Koala Conservation Centre, Phillip Island, Victoria Australia

tru inclusion in travel - Accessible Tourism has to be Customer, not Compliance Focused

phillip is - Accessible Tourism has to be Customer, not Compliance Focused

Phillip Island Nature Parks not only has world class accessible facilities throughout its complex, including the tree top boardwalks, but also sends a powerful message to potential disabled customers that that are welcome by featuring accessibility on the home page of their website including imagery.


Butchart Gardens, British Columbia, Canada

butchart garden - Accessible Tourism has to be Customer, not Compliance Focused

Butchart Gardens has excellent wayfinding facilities throughout the gardens making it easy to navigate a barrier free route


Addo Elephant Park, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

jevis bay - Accessible Tourism has to be Customer, not Compliance Focused

Wheelchair accessible trails and braille signage

Jervis Bay Wild, Accessible Whalewatching, Huskisson, New South Wales, Australia

wheelchair accessible trails - Accessible Tourism has to be Customer, not Compliance Focused

Jervis Bay Wild operates a fully roll-on catamaran with wheelchair access from stern to bow.
A hoist gives access to the boom net for people with limited mobility.

Parks Alberta, Alberta, Canada

Everyone belongs outside

Connecting with nature is important for the quality of life of all people. Parks provide opportunities for people to be active in natural or wilderness settings, to spend time with friends and family, and to escape busy daily routines. The Alberta Parks Division is committed to supporting the participation of all people in park experiences and programs, regardless of ability.

Taking the Leap into Accessible Tourism

The final word goes to Rick Hansen. 25 years after his “Man in Motion World Tour” he clearly identifies in this video, that the issue today is cultural and mindset rather than the lack of physical facilities.

Bungee Jumping is not the “Last Frontier”.

The “Last Frontier” is the Tourism Industry understanding that Accessible Tourism
is a viable and valuable market segment.

The “Last Frontier” is understanding the market’s needs and developing product accordingly.

The “Last Frontier” is not about “special accommodation”, is not about feel good projects,
it is not charity, and it is not about compliance.

It is Fundamental Cultural Change.



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