Eco-tourism is the buzzword in the travel industry, and while it is critically important, the fact that we don’t look after human beings, too, is an issue. So says Tarryn Tomlinson, the visionary brain behind Liveable Access Consultancy and its tourism-focused arm, Able2Travel.
Both companies aim to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to experience hospitality locations and services by applying Universal Design in the built landscape. On top of this incredible work, Tarryn, a wheelchair user, also uses her skills as a television presenter, author, producer and marketer to act as a media spokesperson and campaigner for the disabled community.
“While we are building back tourism, we should be building back better tourism,” she says. We asked Tarryn to share her views on inclusive travel – and why the tourism industry in Africa should lean in and learn.
What is the disabled travel community comprised of, and what is its potential as a market?
It’s a huge market. 15% of the world’s population is living with a disability, whether visible or invisible. It includes the elderly, our Baby Boomers, of which nearly half have some form of physical impairment. Considering that people with disabilities usually travel with caregivers or family, you’re looking at billions of people looking for accessible travel options. We’re looking at a collective spending power of US$2.1 trillion. It’s one of the fastest-growing tourism segments, increasing at 22% per annum.
Tell us more about “invisible disabilities” and what can be done to accommodate their travel needs.
At an aviation congress put together by IATA which I attended recently, Emirates presented the extraordinary changes they are putting in place at airports. Designated helpers are posted throughout the airport and trained to recognise invisible disabilities like autism. They’ve created calming rooms with games and innovations for families with children with sensory challenges. In Australia, the airports have no-noise zones too.
What’s it like to travel with a disability in South Africa?
People with disabilities have to put up with a lot of inaccessible products. There’s a stigma around people with disabilities, and we’re tired of being made to feel like we are a burden, or pitied. So, instead of complaining or raising attention to issues, we tend to just put up with what is on offer or go to places we know are accessible. Many architects and designers I work with in Africa look to South Africa as a leader. They look at our standards, building regulations and processes from an access point of view. In South Africa, our biggest challenge is changing the mentality around accessible tourism; the legislation is already there.
What does a guesthouse or hotel that’s getting it right look like to you?
Firstly, they provide information on their website about their facilities. This includes having photos of the rooms so the client can make an informed decision. If the layout is good, a standard size room will work for a wheelchair user. As a person with a disability, you rely heavily on getting information online because you can’t rely on the booking service provider to give you the correct information. During the website build, the designers can also add plugins, many of which are free, that make the website accessible, either by giving it audio descriptions or it will make the letters bigger. Another thing a good hotel will always have is properly trained staff.
What more should we be doing?
The number of accessible rooms is inadequate. A hotel may have one or two rooms available. I’ve spoken recently to a hotel GM who had a request for an international netball team that wanted 500 accessible rooms. We are losing massive groups and events because we can’t accommodate them. The hospitality sector needs to work on an access plan for their accommodation and engage with people with disabilities when they do so. Architects and designers sometimes need help getting it right. I’ve seen accessible bathrooms where the mirror is the height of someone standing and a room with plush carpets which means I can’t move my wheelchair.
What’s up for you next?
More awareness building and looking to convert more properties into clients so we can start expanding access. It doesn’t need to be an expensive exercise, so they shouldn’t be overwhelmed. Many of the steps of an access plan are free – making your website accessible and moving the layout of your room. We can come up with a long-term strategy that you work towards. We are offering a course on universal design at The Institute of Applied Architecture, working on training architects. If you are building public spaces, you should know about the public you serve. Planning for access at the building stage only adds 1% to the overall cost, which is much cheaper than a retrofit.