Travelers with Disabilities: Responding to a Business Opportunity

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The figures are almost unbelievable. That’s why I rarely quote them in print:

American adults with disabilities or reduced mobility currently spend an average of 13.6 billion U.S. dollars a year on tourism. In 2002, these individuals made 32 million trips and spent 4.2 billion dollars on hotels, 3.3 billion on airline tickets, 2.7 billion on food and beverages, and 3.4 billion on trade, transportation, and other activities. The most popular international destinations for this tourist segment are: (1) Canada; (2) Mexico; (3) Europe; and (4) the Caribbean, in that order.

More remarkable, from my perspective as someone who has traveled extensively in the 35 years since I began to use a wheelchair, is that the travel behavior of people with disabilities has entered into the thinking of mainstream industry professionals.

Responding to the business opportunity – because building codes and social custom often do not mandate the level of accommodation expected by senior or disabled travelers - sites and suppliers subscribe to the core value sets of Inclusive Tourism and Inclusive Destination Development as part of their business sustainability strategy. These inclusion practices arise from the application of the seven principles of Universal Design developed by the Disability Rights Movement. Inclusion itself is one of the principles of the tourism industry’s Integrated Quality Management (IQM) philosophy. Slowly a coherent industry perspective is evolving. Principles for managing the tourism experience of disabled and senior tourists have emerged from sustained observation of the travel behavior of this niche and from dialogue within the communities themselves.

At the same time the disposable income of this demographic is being recognized, the group is growing rapidly in size. In countries with population inversions seniors outnumber youth. There governments have become innovative. Paying for tourism infrastructure with an income stream generated by these visitors has become a new means of upgrading services for their own aging citizens. Attracting this underserved travel niche becomes a marketing imperative. Studies of the travel behavior of this niche are receiving increasing attention because crafting a persuasive story requires understanding the hospitality needs of these travelers with the range of sensory functions, stamina, or mobility options that come with aging and disability. Communicating that message then requires attention to the accessibility (usability) of the media selected.

Australia has long been a leader in Inclusive Tourism through the scholarship of academics like Dr. Simon Darcy and Dr. Tanya Packer as well as the market-creating work of Bruce Cameron. National tourism policy has been reviewed and amended to raise inclusion as a priority. With a whole government approach to this goal and aided by dialogue within the national tourism industry on its value the groundwork has been laid for the entire country to be marketed as a destination of choice for persons with disabilities.

Grasping the market potential the Convention Bureau of Perth, Western Australia initiated a rebate program for venues that actively pursue development of accessibility and agree to reinvest the rebate in further infrastructure development. Major tourist attraction in Sydney have collaborated in a co-marketing strategy to provide online stories of “quintessential experiences” of travelers with various disabilities visiting the cities’ most prominent destinations.

This human-centered design approach to tourism product development has begun to converge with an eco-sensitive ethic and a responsible tourism approach. The resulting sustainable Universal Design philosophy appears in consensus documents such as the Rio Charter: Universal Design for Sustainable and Inclusive Development. It surfaced as a theme in Australia’s NICAN conference on Inclusive Tourism in 2004 and in Taiwan’s first International Accessible Tourism Conference in 2005 and the International Conference on Accessible Tourism in Bangkok in 2007. It will be the focus of a similar conference in Singapore in 2009 and of the Turismo Para Todos Conference scheduled for May 2008 in Brazil.

Stories of systemic inclusion at this level travel through both the industry and the consumer market. They are triggering imitation and bringing out visitors. Destinations that adopt an integrated approach to the management of the experience of senior and disabled travelers stand to benefit from a market that studies report is underserved and eager to travel.

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