In Part 1 of this series, Travel Weekly examined some of the
ways airlines and hotels are attempting to be more inclusive and accommodating
to disabled travelers.
In Part 2, the publication looks at how destinations, cruises and tours
confront their limitations while trying to accommodate all travelers and
explores what advisors must recognize in order to serve this growing market.
Earlier this year, online booking platform Wheel the World, which specializes in
serving travelers with disabilities, responded to increasing requests for help
from travel advisors by launching an affiliate program for them. The program
includes access to the Wheel the World Academy, which offers education on
serving clients with disabilities.
It is among several resources available for agencies serving
clients with accessibility needs.
The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing
Education Standards began offering a training course on autism for travel
advisors in 2017. The course was born out of increasing demand from travelers
and venues, which the company also certifies, board president Meredith Tekin says.
“One thing the training focuses on is that there is a
spectrum,” she says. “So we provide direction on what each travel professional
should listen for to find out what clients’ specific needs or preferences are
in order to plan the best trip.”
The program educates advisors on these needs and on
understanding autism and includes recommendations.
Accessio, an accessible travel consultancy that works with
advisors, says that it is in talks with many suppliers about adding products
with accessible options. Acknowledging that it will take time, the organization
hopes that its work will result in more diverse products down the road.
For now, however, co-founder Mitch Gross advises agents
serving clients with accessibility needs not to engage in guesswork about
whether a vacation will be accommodating to disabled clients.
“You’ve got legal exposure,” he says. “You could put someone
in danger. Aside from just having a lousy trip, think about disruption
management, duty of care, the implications for travel insurance, all sorts of
things. Don’t guess.”
He encourages advisors to seek out companies like Tapooz
Travel, which specializes in tours for disabled travelers and their companions
(and is owned by Accessio co-founder Laurent Roffe).
“In the near term, that’s the best thing that people can
do,” Gross says. “Many suppliers, if you get to the right one, can help you
piece it together. It’s a patchwork. You have to know the right people,
leverage your relationships and find out. And it will take time.”
He also encourages agencies to set up a dedicated desk and
enable advisors to take time to become experts in accessible travel in order to
form relationships that will better serve travelers.
Large ocean cruise ships have long been considered among the
most accessible vacations for people with mobility limitations, and that is in
part because all cruise ships that sail in U.S. waters must be compliant with
the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
But many river cruise ships that operate outside of the
U.S., as well as some smaller ocean and expedition ships that visit far-flung
destinations, are often not equipped to handle travelers with disabilities.
The number of guests with disabilities booking Royal
Caribbean International cruises has “exploded” over the years, says Ron Pettit,
the line’s director of disability inclusion and ADA compliance.
“It’s my goal and my team’s goal to help people to take a
vacation from their disability,” says Pettit, who is hard of hearing and says
he understands the lived-experience of those with disabilities. “What we want
to do is make their vacation effortless and easy. We don’t want them to have to
fight with the heavy doors on a ship. We want them to get in and out of pools
with ease. We want them to be able to utilize all the features of the stateroom
comfortably and easily. That is our goal.”
Pettit says other examples of accessibility are to provide
wheelchair spaces in both the front and back of a theater to allow better
viewing of performances, or offering gluten-free dining options. The line
offers autism-friendly movie showings, which have sensory-friendly features
such as lower volume or rooms that are not as dark as typical on other movie
Royal is also home to the Autism of the Seas program. Those
cruises offer a specially trained crew member for every two to three guests who
sign up for it, as well as specialized respite sessions, private activities and
help with the line’s products and services.
He says the line has also published a video to help prepare
people with autism for their cruise experience, which helps parents and
children understand what to expect.
The offerings have landed well; the pandemic years aside,
since the program began in 2014, Royal has doubled the annual number of
autistic guests who sail with them.
John Sage is CEO of Sage Traveling, which specializes in
planning trips for people with disabilities in Europe and the Caribbean. He says
some cruise line offerings can be among the most accommodating vacation options
in the travel industry for disabled travelers, with thoughtfully designed rooms
and automatic doors.
However, Sage says, cruise lines can do a better job of
highlighting that information on their websites. And while he commends cruise
lines for performing better than many resorts when it comes to providing for
disabled travelers, he says there is particularly room for improvement in the
area of shore excursions. The need to travel by Zodiac or tender can derail a
much-desired excursion, he says, and sometimes the excursion includes
unanticipated journeys on hills or cobblestone streets. He would like cruise
lines to prioritize offering at least one accessible shore excursion in every
port and says the industry should commit to making tenders accessible for
people who use wheelchairs.
“The moment somebody is scared while being carried down,
it’s all out the window,” he says.
Disabled travelers wanting to take expedition and river
cruises will sometimes discover that they are not nearly as accommodating as
mainstream ocean cruise ships.
Expedition ship excursions often rely heavily on inflatable
Zodiacs, which can be difficult for even nondisabled people to get in and out
of. Some of these ships do not even have elevators.
A number of river cruise ships are equipped with elevators,
and some lines, like AmaWaterways, provide wheelchairs and even scooters
onboard, in addition to walking sticks and facilities on docking decks to
better assist guests.
“On the newest ship, AmaMagna, the elevators even go up to
the sun deck,” says Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-founder of
AmaWaterways, adding that the company also provides excursions based on
activity level that may accommodate guests with special requirements. “But if
they [must use a] wheelchair, then it is better not to be on a river cruise
ship because too many obstacles remain.”
Most river cruise lines require that travelers with
accessibility needs be somewhat mobile in order to embark and disembark,
especially in an emergency. In Europe, ships are often tethered together
side-by-side, and passengers must go across other river ships in order to
Scenic Group spokesman Elliot Gillies says mobility means
being able to walk up and down the boarding ramp and, in case of emergency, be
able to walk up stairs to the top deck (None of the elevators on Scenic or
Emerald river ships go to that deck).
Destinations also play a role in whether or not a river
cruise can accommodate a traveler with accessibility needs.
AmaWaterways says Europe is the best destination to visit
for a traveler with accessibility needs as more accommodations can be found
there than in other destinations, such as the Mekong, where its AmaDara vessel
doesn’t have an elevator.
“You couldn’t cruise in Vietnam and Cambodia on the Mekong,”
says Rudi Schreiner, president and co-founder of AmaWaterways. “When you go to
Angkor Wat, there are exposed roots in the ground — you’re always walking over
things. Europe is your best bet. The big cities are the most active in new
Destinations around the world are trying to be more
accessible, as part of mandates to be more inclusive and also in response to
the growing market as boomers age.
At Visit Florida, accessible travel is a top focus for the
state’s marketing arm.
‘Can I go there and have a similar experience to someone who doesn’t have the disability that I have?’ I think that’s what the community is looking for.
Dana Young - Visit Florida
“There is a giant market for accessible travel because the
number of Americans, both adults and children, who travel with some sort of
disability, be it physical, mental or another limitation, is huge,” says Dana
Young, CEO of Visit Florida.
According to the state’s data, by 2034 there will be 77
million people 65 and older who are likely to have a disability. “So that’s 40%
of all adult Americans who will have some form of disability,” Young says.
Visit Florida’s website has a landing page with information
on the state’s varied accessible travel offerings that features contributions
from disabled content creators.
“‘Can I go there and have a similar experience to someone
who doesn’t have the disability that I have?’ I think that’s what the community
is looking for,” Young says.
The state is focused on providing wheelchair accessible
beaches and accommodations as well as attractions for children with autism. It
is also home to the St. Augustine Braille Trail, a permanent installation of
seven sculptures with Braille signage, raised tactile diagrams and audio
stories available for free by phone and mobile app.
Last year, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
on Sanibel Island installed spotting scopes for colorblind visitors that use
EnChroma lens technology to enhance the colors they see. It also provides
EnChroma eyeglasses for guests to borrow during visits.
Using them, “the colorblind can actually see the park and
its birds in vibrant colors,” Young says.
New York’s destination marketing arm, NYC & Company, is
also “leaning into” the accessible travel market, says CEO Fred Dixon, with
increased focus on issues around mobility and accessibility and staff training
on those issues.
“We’ve always had an accessibility guide, but we’re going in
deeper and acting with more intentionality,” Dixon says. “What does it mean to
be welcoming to travelers with mobility issues if you’re a hotel, a Broadway
theater, an attraction or a restaurant? These will all be greater issues as the
Israel is also working to make itself more accessible,
something of a challenge in a country with streets that are thousands of years
old. Jerusalem’s Old City recently added handrails and wheelchair ramps between
three of the city’s holiest sites — the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Temple
Mount and the Western Wall — and will add elevators to the Tower of David. The
Step-Hear Program app, which assists and supports the visually impaired with
navigation, is available in English, Arabic and Hebrew.
Travel advisors have cited Israel as among the countries
that has long made itself accessible to disabled travelers.
“Israel unfortunately has many people with disabilities due
to conflicts, and so they are very accommodating,” says Sophia Kulich of
Sophia’s Travel, which specializes in heritage travel, Ukraine and
multigenerational tours. “It’s their way of life.”
Tour operators face challenges in accommodating travelers
with accessibility needs, because their ability to accommodate them is often
limited by the destination they are in.
To accommodate her clients taking tours, Sophia Kulich of
Sophia’s Travel says she screens them prior to booking in order to evaluate
their level of mobility and see what accommodations they need.
“We have a lot of possibilities booking handicapped
accessible rooms for them,” Kulich says. “Some can use collapsible wheelchairs
or regular buses if we make sure an extra stool is available. For other
clients, we use handicapped accessible vans with special platforms to lift
them. Then there are people who just move more slowly, and we work to
accommodate their pace.”
can, when possible, offer adjustments to itineraries and create custom trips to
fit a variety of different accessibility needs or other physical, medical and
“Intrepid understands the incredibly diverse nature of
accessible travel — and it is not a one-size-fits-all product solution,” says
Matt Berna, president of Intrepid Travel North America. “We have accommodated
travelers with vision impairments, hearing problems and various mobility and
mental health issues.”
Berna says that adjustments to meet certain needs are more
achievable than others, and when it’s not possible to adjust the trip to
accommodate a client, it may require reconsidering that itinerary or a
“Most of our itineraries would be possible for a deaf
customer, with reasonable adjustments made that might include providing written
information, additional briefings or traveling with support,” he says. “Nowhere
near as many itineraries would be possible for a customer in a wheelchair
because either the infrastructure isn’t there to support them or the
adjustments to the trip would be too difficult within a large group trip.”
Despite the accessibility accommodations Intrepid can make,
there is still a long way to go in the travel industry and around the world’s
most sought-after destinations to make travel truly inclusive for everyone.
“Over a billion people — 15% of the world’s population —
live with some sort of disability,” Berna says. “Ensuring equal access to
travel is simply the right thing to do. We know that travelers with
disabilities are increasingly looking beyond specialized disability tour
operators and want to travel in an authentic, exploratory way with their
family, friends and other like-minded people. That’s why we like to use the
term ‘inclusive travel.’”
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