Destinations, Hotels Need to do More for Accessible Tourism.
The Transit Cafe
Monday, 11th May 2009
Australia takes first steps and Accor Asia Pacific makes headway, but finding a hotel room is still the most difficult thing to do if you are in a wheelchair.

In the Asia Pacific region, Australia is one of the more progressive destinations in this segment. In 2008, the Sustainable Tourism Cooperative Research Centre (STCRC) published a study on Accessible Tourism identifying challenges and opportunities in 'an evolving aspect of Australian tourism.'

In the report, Tourism New South Wales identified that there were 730,000 people with a physical disability in New South Wales. Research indicated that 77% of these people travelled within Australia in the previous year and 11% travelled overseas. The average group size for domestic trips was 4.1 people, generally with only one person in having a disability in the group.

Speaking on accessibility in Australia at the International Conference on Accessible Tourism, Ms Maggie White, Regional General Manager, S/SE Asia & Gulf, International (Eastern), Tourism Australia said that all buildings built in Australia in the last 20 years must have disabled access by law.

'Most hotels, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, museums, stadiums, shops and public transport and public open space areas have excellent provisions for all dimensions of access,' she added.

In addition, there are easy accessible toilets around the country with a dedicated website www.toiletmap.gov.au and guide map that allows people with disabilities to identify toilets with disability access and plan toilet stops for short or long trips.

'It is the legal duty of businesses who provide services to the public, to remove all barriers to accessibility.'
She shared STCRC research that showed that some 88% of people with disability take a holiday each year in Australia, resulting in some 8.2million overnight trips. The average travel group size is 2.8 for overnight trips and 3.4 for day trips.

'It'sa myth that accessible tourism does not spend due to economic circumstances and their travel is on a level comparable to general population for domestic overnight stays and day trips,' she said.

In Australia in 2003'04, it is estimated that tourists with a disability spent between A$8,034.68 million and A$11980.272 million and contributed between A$3075.5243 million and A$4580.219 million to Tourism Gross Value Added (GVA) ?representing 12.27%'15.60 % of total tourism GVA.

Mr Evan Lewis, Vice President-Communications of Accor Asia Pacific, talked about the challenges of delivering 'equality, independence and functionality to people with disabilities' across the group which has 500,000 rooms in 90 countries and employs 150,000 employees globally.

He said the group adhered to international guidelines for construction in all cities, even when there wasn't the legislation in place, and ensured it had disabled facilities in place across all brands. It also has employee recruitment programmes aimed at hiring disabled workers.

'In China, the government regulates the number of disabled employees in our hotels at 1.5%, however in some of Accor's China hotels this number can be as high as 3%.'

In Shanghai, the group took in 20 interns and trained them. Some were recruited by other hotels in Shanghai.

Lewis said that employment of disabled was not only doing the right thing by the community but also introduced diversity into the employee base. 'This helps staff to engage with the disabled and helps them to better appreciate and provide better levels of service.'

The demand for accessible rooms, he said, was higher at the budget level. The Ibis Sydney, which was the first hotel to open in Sydney in 10 years, has four out of its 91 rooms designed for accessibility along with many initiatives to provide a similar level of service to all guests. Many of these initiatives will be deployed throughout Asia.

'The challenge is enforcement and convincing owners to invest in hardware and recruitment,' he said.

Another challenge is different terminology used by different groups, including hotels, to describe the various disabilities. 'Some call it mobile-impaired, some wheelchair-bound. We must do better with standardising terms.'

For wheelchair-bound travellers like Hideto Kijimi, the wheelchair traveller who's been to 99 countries, 'finding a hotel is the most difficult thing'

'Cheap hotels are not accessible, that is why they are cheap,?he laughed. He doesn't book beforehand, he finds a hotel when he arrives at a destination.

In Bergen, Norway, he went to the visitor information centre and asked for 'the cheapest hotel in town that is accessible' He told the woman staff his budget was US$70. She said she could get him a $20 hotel and there was no need to spend that much.

His room turned out to be on the third floor, there was no lift, it had shared shower/bathroom facilities and there were 12 people to a room. 'Men and women showered together. There was a German woman changing in front of me. I was 21 years old. It wasn't bad. $20, cheap hotel and I saw a naked woman.'

Kliff Ang, CEO of Asia Travel Group, who is putting together the first accessible tour of Singapore knows firsthand the challenges. 'There is lack of support and knowledge in Singapore, for example, most of the insurance companies avoid disabled group tours and limited accessible vehicles and coaches.'

Another obstacle is the lack of hotel facilities. For example, Mr Ang said that if there was a group of 10 wheelchair-bound travelers in a group, they could not all stay in one hotel.

Nevertheless, he persevered and his company has put together a series of accessible tour products. 'We will be actively marketing our products to the world. However, due to the complexity of disabilities, we need to constantly
upgrade and develop more products to suit different type of disabilities.'

Saying,'I find it hard to promote accessible tourism in Singapore? he added, 'It is discouraging to learn that as a global and developed country, we are lacking in accessible tourism but we have to continue to work on it. We need to give due respect to people with disabilities and let them travel in comfort.'

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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