Yeoh Siew Hoon kicked off the year by speaking on accessible tourism at a seminar on assistive and rehabilitation engineering. Here are excerpts of her talk.
I have been covering the industry for close to 30 years and I have to admit that the subject of accessible tourism has never really come up on the radar screen.
At the hundreds of conferences I have attended all over the world, rarely have I heard much discussion about the subject. It's not a mainstream subject.
Personally I had not heard of the term until a few months ago when I was approached by the Disabled People's Association of Singapore if they could attend my conference, Web In Travel, and ITB Asia. They wanted to promote their event, the International Conference on Accessible Tourism, taking place in Singapore in April.
That's when my own education began. And sadly, I have to say this is true of the travel industry at large – accessible tourism or inclusive tourism is a foreign country which most tourism professionals have not visited.
Since then I have done some research into the subject and I will try and share what little I know. 1. Numbers you should know
- One in eight people in the world live with a disability
- 42 million disabled travellers in the USA take 31.7 million trips per year, and spend US$13.6 billion annually.
- There are 8.5 million disabled people in the UK alone, with an annual spend of over Ł40 billion. Of these, 2.5 million travel regularly.
- By 2009 there will be in the UK 2 million more people over 60 than there are today.
- Older people will make up 24% of Europe's population (European Network of Accessible Tourism); add to this 50 million people with disabilities …
I have a friend, George Booth, who runs a travel company in Western Australia called Integrated Tourism Services. He's been in tour operating all his life and when he turned 60, he formed a company to run tours for the elderly. He says it's a big, lucrative market that is growing rapidly and has "health, wealth and time".
Unfortunately, some have been hard hit by the global financial crisis – George tells me they have saved and put their compulsory superannuation into investments that have depleted up to 30% in the last year, making them nervous to commit to long haul holidays for 2009. But he sees this as a temporary blip and he sees opportunities for Asian destinations.
He does 3-4 groups a year and he takes them to Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Mauritius.2. It's a big market but we are missing the mark
I approached several travel companies for information on what they were doing about this market. It wasn't easy to get the information – perhaps because it was the holidays or possibly because it was information they hadn't been asked for before.
Major airlines such as Singapore Airlines have policies in place, of course. Priority during boarding and disembarkation, wheelchair assistance, dedicated check in counters, special training for cabin crew, some exemptions for example, "While pets aren't allowed on board the aircraft cabin, exceptions are made for a certified guide dog to accompany its visually-impaired owner".
The AAPA (Association of Asia Pacific Airlines) tells me that all member carriers have minimum standards they adhere to.
However, generally in the more fragmented hotel industry, hotel groups did not seem to have a systematic group-wide approach to policies. They differed according to the cities the hotels were located.
Accor Asia Pacific had this to say, "In Asia it is fair to say that we factor in 'accessibility' into the design and construction of all our hotels, in addition to recruitment processes that accommodate local legislation for the recruitment of handicapped employees.
"Traditionally independent aged Asian travellers have predominantly travelled as a part of a coordinated group or with family and as such the demand has not been significant on our hotels. With the average age length getting longer and increased FIT travelers emanating from regional markets, we expect this market to grow."
Among destinations in Asia Pacific, Australia, Japan and Taiwan seemed the most active. Tourism Australia's website has a page on accessible tourism. There are several websites in Australia that provide a wealth of information for travelers needing assistance.
The Province of BC, Canada, has budgeted C$1.14 million to establish its Accessible Tourism Strategy by 2010. In the US there is an organisation that specialises in disability travel (Accessible Journeys). If you google "accessible tourism uk", Visit Britain comes out tops. There is a website, Good Access Guide, which bills itself as the online guide to life, leisure and mobility.
If you google "accessible tourism Singapore", the first mention is of the International Conference on Accessible Tourism.
I asked George which Asian destinations were friendliest for elderly travelers. Here's what he says:
a) Singapore (safe/easy to get around/cheap food available/dhopping)
b) Vietnam (educational/new destination/cheap shopping)
c) Mauritius (half board/direct flight/safe)
d) Malaysia – Sabah (safe/things to see/war history); also Penang/Langkawi (good value)
As for what else could destinations (or Singapore) could do to become friendlier for the elderly market, he says, "have some sort of tourist seniors card relating to food/transport/movies/sightseeing maybe around Malaysia/Singapore/Thailand."
The fact is, not enough thought is being given by the tourism industry to this sector. I think a lot of lip service is given but not a lot of real action is taken. I don't believe it's out of purposeful neglect, more that we are clueless about how to deal with it. 3. This is the year of the silver lining
I am an eternal optimist and I believe in these tough times, and with what has brought the global economy to its knees –all the stories of greed and fraud we have heard – we will become a more caring world. And if each of us look hard for our silver lining, we will all find it. The niche market of accessible tourism could well be the silver lining for travel companies who are smart enough to recognise the potential and go after it in a targeted, responsible manner. Since it is such a new field, the ones who do it first and who get it right will have an advantage.
I see accessible tourism as the second wave behind the environment, which is now finally top on the agenda for tourism and other businesses. And just as it did with environmental issues, it will take a combination of political will, legislation and growing consumer demand to force the pace of change. 4. The Internet is the driver of dreams
I believe there's been no bigger empowerer of the human imagination than the Internet. It's opened up the world to all of us, regardless of race, religion or creed. It allows us to travel without physically moving. My conference, WIT, is all about how the Web has transformed the travel landscape, from virtual travel to different distribution channels to how consumers search, book and buy.
In the International Herald Tribune yesterday, I read about TV Raman, who became blind at 14. An engineer at Google, he spends his time helping to make gadgets and Web services more user friendly to everyone.
Rather than asking how something should work if a person cannot see, he asks, "How should something work when the user is not looking at the screen?"
He developed a Google search for the blind, and is now working on a touch-screen phone.
"The thing I am most interested in is all of the stuff moving to the mobile world because it is a big life changer."
As such tools become more available there will be fewer barriers to communication and fewer excuses for the industry not to engage with, and employ, the disabled for suitable jobs within the industry.5. I knew of a blind boy who dreamt of being a cook
I was told this story by a general manager friend who, when working in Montreal, was approached by a blind boy who said he had always wanted to be a chef. He took the boy in and placed him under the wing of a team of staff and to this day, I believe the boy, who is now a man, has gone from kitchen helper to chef.
Here's what Michel Geday wrote in his blog when he shared this story, "Fred opened my eyes to a new vision – that personally, in my career, I would do what I can to employ disabled wherever I was and that one day, when the time is right, I would try and do something on a bigger scale about the employment of disabled by the hotel industry at large.
"Even as we complain about lack of staff, it seems to me we are ignoring a critical and valuable segment of our society. And it's always bothered me as to why we don't open our doors wider to those who may be physically challenged but are fully capable of doing certain jobs?
"For example, at the front desk, we have staff standing around. Why can't we have staff in wheelchairs? There are those who think this may upset the guests – when they see a handicapped person at the front desk. But perhaps it's not the guest we really worry about but the inconvenience to us.
"A mindset change is required and this is the right time for us to do something about it."Finally, 6, You Only Know When You Know
It takes each of us to experience something personally before we become aware of it. You know how it is when you first start wearing spectacles and then you realise how many people actually wear them?
It took a similar but more serious injury 18 months ago when I spent 8 weeks in a hard cast and crutches – you must think me very accident-prone – before I myself became aware of how unfriendly the world can be if you are not physically like everybody else.
The truth is, when you are in the minority, your needs are, well, regarded as minor. Majority rules. Minority rues.
Like with everything else, it takes first hand experience or exposure or education to spread the word out.
Now I am not suggesting we go out crippling everyone in sight so they see the light, but I think all of us must continue to chip away at the edges and keep communicating the message that tourism needs to be accessible for all and inclusive of all. Yeoh Siew Hoon, one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, writes a regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry for 4Hoteliers.com.
Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com
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