Accessible Tourism: Understanding its need and opportunities!
Across the globe, there are millions of people living with disabilities, senior citizens, children, and other travellers who face peculiar and distinctive challenges while traveling right from trip planning, comfortable transportation to finding a suitable accommodation. With more than 26.8 million people with disabilities living in India, this is a huge under-served market that needs the travel industry's attention!
According to the statistics published by the Ministry of Tourism, Govt of India, in 2019, India recorded 10.93 Million foreign tourist arrivals (a 3.5% increase from 2018) and about 2.32 Billion Domestic Tourist visits to all states(a 25.3% increase from 2018). These numbers clearly demonstrate the tremendous potential that the Indian travel and tourism industry has to offer. However, there is still a wide section of travellers whose needs are not catered to as expected. The tourism industry is missing out on a 'billion-dollar opportunity in the form of 'Accessible Tourism'!
Despite the developments in tourism, the lack of products & services conducive to the travel rights of individuals with accessibility needs or any special needs is one of the obstacles that should be overcome. There is no universally agreed and accepted definition of the term accessible tourism, which perhaps contributes to the lack of clarity that many people have in understanding what constitutes accessible tourism.
Accessible Tourism: The Concept
Accessible Tourism also known as 'Inclusive Tourism' is a form of travel that caters to the needs and requirements of all travel consumers including persons with disabilities or not, including those with mobility, hearing, sight, cognitive, or intellectual and psychosocial disabilities, individuals with heart conditions or any other medical conditions that need special care, older persons, pregnant women, family traveling with infants and those with temporary disabilities. While many would relate accessible tourism to assisting by providing wheelchairs to travelers with disabilities, it is much more than that. It is basically about providing access to tourism for people from all walks of life and all kinds of backgrounds irrespective of any disabilities and differences. Accessibility is a central element of any responsible and sustainable development policy, both in the context of tourism and in other areas.
Increasing awareness about Accessible Tourism
The concept of accessible tourism has, however, evolved considerably throughout recent years. This is largely because society has become more recognizant of and more inclusive of travellers with varied needs. This has resulted in discussions about accessibility for all travellers coming to the forefront amongst tourism stakeholders.
We had a discussion with Dr. Anjlee Agarwal - National Awardee, 2003, Accessibility, Mobility & WASH Specialist, Founder & Executive Director at Samarthyam - a disabled people organization (DPO) founded in 1993. Samarthyam disseminates and implements ‘Accessibility Awareness and Implementation Strategies’ through a novel model, which primarily focuses on promoting an enabling environment. They undertake actions oriented to mainstream persons with disabilities and empower them to live a quality life with dignity.
She stated that there has been a paradigm shift in tourism and accessibility of various attractions across India as compared to what it was in 1993. Today we (Govt. of India) have a powerful connect with mandates on disabilities for making maximum sites barrier-free. Over the years Samarthayam has worked a lot with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) for making ticketed monuments and World Heritage Sites in India accessible.
However, despite the strong laws, mandates, rules, and regulations India lacks ground-level implementation. There could be various reasons for the lack of execution.
India as a country needs to channel funds in making various sites and places barrier-free, as this could not only improve the mobility of people with disabilities or conditions but will also encourage more foreign tourists to visit the country.
In the discussion when asked, is there enough done in the hotel industry, transportation, destination, tourist activities wrt accessibility? She replied at a stroke “Not enough”. Often various hotels claim to meet accessibility requirements but in reality, the picture isn't the same. There is a lack of information and fake information provided in every sector which in return leaves with very limited options available. She narrated an incident from her travel to Kashmir - She wanted to take the famous Gondola ride experience but unfortunately, the ride was not equipped for a physically challenged person. (Dr. Anjlee is a wheelchair user).
Neha Arora was born to parents with disabilities and was witness to many challenges her family faced during their travels. This inspired her to start Planetabled, a travel company that provides accessible travel solutions and leisure excursions for people with different disabilities. But do others need to see the challenges in accessibility upfront before they start incorporating accessible friendly practices?
Kerala sets the example
For those specially-abled persons struggling to fulfill their dreams of travelling, a silver lining has emerged as Kerala becomes the first state in India to become elderly and disabled-friendly by putting in place all the basic infrastructure and facilities at tourism centers. The project called ‘Barrier-free Kerala Tourism Project’, which was launched in 2019 by the Department of Tourism, Kerala, with the support of Responsible Tourism Kerala had to be halted due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic last year. It finally completed its third and final phase in January 2021, with more than 100 spots turning elderly and disabled-friendly. With this, Kerala has also become the first state in India to implement the UN World Tourism Organisation’s (UNWTO) call for ‘Tourism for All’ and was also named as an ‘Emerging Global Destination’ in the Accessible Destination Awards 2019. Although this may just be an initial step towards understanding and respecting each traveller's needs in India, but, it sure is a remarkable example for other states in India to follow and implement.
Internationally, countries like UAE have aimed for concentrated focus on accessible tourism as the country reopens for tourism post-pandemic. Dubai also hosted the first of its kind Dubai Accessible Tourism International Summit in the Middle East, India, and Africa with a vision to make UAE as well as Dubai a preferred friendly destination for tourists and visitors with disabilities. Its second edition is slated to be hosted in Dubai on November 22 & 23, 2021.
Another example in this sector is Germany’s - 'Feel Good' initiative ensuring the country is accessible to all. Germany has been positioning itself as a leading destination for accessibility in tourism with public transport, infrastructure, and businesses now required to meet outlined standards to ensure equal ease of use for all locals and travellers. They suggest to you all the tips, offers, and services that have been carefully researched and checked in consultation with sustainability experts and tourism specialists from across German states, thereby making it easier for the traveller to browse according to their needs.
The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) criteria which is the baseline standards for sustainability in travel and tourism has highlighted the need for accessible tourism in its destination criteria B8 and the Industry criteria A7 - "Access for all".
Opportunities in Accessible Tourism
People with different abilities and older persons are now becoming a growing group of consumers of travel, sports, and other leisure-oriented products and services. In an effort to tap the potential of this group for the promotion of tourist destinations in India, the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India has taken an initiative to make tourist destinations barrier-free. Guidelines have been issued for making the tourist facilities that are being created with central financial assistance, barrier-free. The Ministry has also instituted a new category of Award of Excellence for Most Barrier-Free Monument/Tourist Attraction in the country to encourage other agencies responsible for maintaining monuments/tourist attractions to create a barrier-free environment for the promotion of accessible tourism. The condition of making the hotels accessible for people with different abilities has been included in the guidelines for approval and classification of 4 and 5-star category hotels.
By now, I think we agree that India has well-constructed laws and a mandate for creating a barrier-free environment but often it is not translated into reality on the ground level. Strict rules and regulations have to be levied followed by strict penalties for rule-breakers. There has to be transparency among the stakeholders of tourism so that true and accurate information is provided to the people. India still has a long path to take on the journey of developing India as a barrier-free country. India needs to buck up in the implementation of the laws in its true spirit. India can always look upon various countries in Europe, Hongkong, Singapore, Taiwan, UAE which serve some best rank in terms of accessible tourism.
Accessible tourism involves a collaborative process among all stakeholders in tourism including Governments, international agencies, tour operators, the hospitality industry, the aviation industry, and the tourists themselves. When planning for accessible tourism at a destination or a site, three key areas have to be taken into account - environment, economy, and society(people). By ensuring there is accessible tourism, destinations can enhance their business prospects by attracting a wider range of tourists than they may otherwise achieve. Accessible tourism is not a luxury, it is a right of each person who is enthusiastic to travel. Everybody should have access to travel and enjoy various tourist destinations across the globe at their own pace!
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