Below is the text of my opening keynote presentation at the 2005 International Conference on Accessible Tourism in Taipei, Taiwan.
In March of this year Steve Fossett made history when he took off from Salina, Kansas in the USA and flew his airplane, the GlobalFlyer, for 67 hours nonstop in a solo around-the-world flight. I have only one half hour to take you all the way around the world and tell you about accessible tourism. Fasten your seatbelts. This will be a very quick flight!
The story of accessible tourism as a growing part of the tourism industry could begin at many different points. Soon the first history of accessible tourism will be published in the Review of Disability Studies. The authors Laurel van Horn and Jose Isola explain how improvements in medicine have allowed disabled people to live longer; improvements in equipment such as wheelchairs, hearing aids, or computers that speak for us allow us to be more active; entrepreneurs and other risk-takers with disabilities have started travel agencies, sports leagues, and outdoor expeditions expanding our imaginations and challenging us to ever larger goals.
And always, there is the fact that year-by-year the Baby Boomers – who love to travel – become older and more become disabled. They will become the main characters in the next chapter of the history of accessible travel. Even before that, even now, this story about how we got to where we are today is full of enough heroes and villains for me to entertain you for a long time.
But we are taking the quick tour. I will let you read the article for yourselves when we publish it.
For today, let’s start this tour of accessible tourism by looking a moment more at commercial aviation.
The airline industry now has mature airplane technology, well-tested airport design and a very large and growing customer base. It was not always that way.
Taiwan has 2 international airports served by numerous airlines and receiving thousands of passengers annually. Air links to the world are essential to Taiwan’s economic health. For many people, air travel has become as common as travel by bus, subway, or taxi. This is because the transition from propeller to jet engine airplanes made it possible for these large numbers of people to move across great distances rapidly and in comfort. Comfort may include pressurized cabins with oxygenated air for someone with compromised lungs, attendants to assist with boarding for those unstable on their legs, and space for equipment like a wheelchair or a companion animal for someone who is blind. Unfortunately, sometimes, the airlines are tempted to define comfort so that it serves only the few.
How does an industry innovate to survive once it becomes as large and taken for granted as the airlines? It looks ways to increase income from its current customers and looks to attract new ones.
When businesses realized that they must compete for our business or lose us – that is when the story got interesting to me.
I believe that the travel industry, not governments or social entrepreneurial agencies will make the next revolutionary contribution to the rights of people with disabilities.
The travel industry will become promoters of our human rights because we have spent more than 30 years tirelessly forcing governments to treat us as real human beings and have created social and non-profit agencies to work for us. These laws and educational resources make it possible for something new to happen. The travel industry will find partners in government because tourism by people with disabilities can partially pay for the infrastructure changes needed to treat disabled citizens justly – and meet the coming challenge of our aging populations. The travel industry will do this – and is already doing this – because it can profit from us.
As air travel expanded in the last 15 – 20 years there were also strong movements for the rights of people with disabilities around the world. You probably have all heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA. It protects the civil rights of people with disabilities in the USA and allows them to participate freely in society. In the air however it is the Air Carrier Access Act, the ACAA, that regulates the industry and makes accessible tourism possible. In the airport and in hotels it is the ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities (ADAAG). These regulations are made concrete through the work of designers like Coco Raynes and researchers like Kate Hunter-Zaworski who evaluates airline seating or Harry Wolfe who advises airport managers on the needs of older travelers. These pioneers use a design philosophy called Universal Design that seeks to include people with the broadest range of capacities and abilities in everything that it built.
So, what history teaches us when we start the story of accessible tourism from the airline industry, is that at a certain point the industry needed new customers. It was pressured by law to allow people with disabilities to become customers and it found technically competent individuals who understood the physical needs of people with disabilities. These technically competent individuals used Universal Design to make human rights real in our day-to-day life. They opened up new parts of the world to travelers with disabilities. Finally, we became treated as customers not patients or obstacles.
Today excellent studies exist on the tourism potential of people with disabilities. Some studies were done by the United Nations UNESCAP, by Keroul of Canada, and by the European Union but it was pioneers like Simon Darcy in Australia and Eric Lipp in the USA who gave tourism professionals the business tools they could use to act – and to make money.
I encourage you to read “From Anxiety to Access” by Simon and the “Travel Behavior Surveys” by Eric. In fact, I would even suggest that someone here today take on the task of translating them into Chinese. I say this, not only because they are historic documents that launched the current phase of accessible tourism, but because we would all like to see similar studies on Taiwan shape the future of accessible travel in the Asia Pacific region.
Eric’s study found that:
The 42 million disabled travelers in the USA take 31.7 million trips per year, and spend $13.6 billion annually. Major areas of spending include $3.3 billion on airfare, $4.2 billion on hotel accommodations, and $2.7 billion on food and beverage. In addition, adults with disabilities patronize restaurants about once a week, and they account for $35 billion in annual revenue for restaurants.
Simon’s study found that:
On average 80-90% of all travel by people with a physical
disability is with a partner/caregiver, family or friends who do not
have a disability. Of those who undertook travel with other
people with a disability most traveled with 1-2 other people with
That is a lot of people with a lot of money to spend – and those are only consumer numbers from the USA.
It was the ocean cruise ship industry, not the airlines, who first learned how to turn those words into profit. When they created their successful business models they made accessible tourism sustainable. Part of their success came from understanding a simple concept that people with mobility difficulties know as “the path of travel.”
Cruise ships are compact universes. If you can conveniently locate a tourist’s necessities – and guarantee that the tourist can get to them with minimal effort – then you have a formula for success. In other words, do not just make a table in a restaurant accessible. Make a destination, like a restaurant, accessible from every possible starting point in the ship, or resort, or city. Create an accessible “path of travel” to an accessible destination and then you have an accessible product not just one special accessible item. You have a reason for tourists not only to pass through but to stay.
Today, whole regions, states, and countries are learning these simple facts. I want to tell you about some on our quick trip around the world. I hope that you will tell me about many more while we are together here.
To the south of us, Australia takes accessible tourism quite seriously for both domestic and international tourists. The Convention Bureau there in Perth, Western Australia has a program called “Beyond Accessibility.” It requires the hotels to use from 10% to 15% of the profit they make from the conventions brought to them by the Convention Bureau for upgrading the hotel’s accerssibility.
In Australia’s state of Tasmania, the Devil’s Playground does something unique in the entire world with the concept of “paths of travel.” Kerry & Jane Winberg have purchased several properties throughout the seven tourist regions of the island. Each location is fully wheelchair accessible. In addition, they have purchased their own bus with a lift. Thus, any place in the entire state can be visited in a comfortable day trip. As a result, the entire island is open to travelers with disabilities. I traveled around Tasmania as one of their first guests last September. We taught shopkeepers and tourist site managers about the potential of this market and what they could do to improve their appeal to travelers with disabilities. Now, my colleague Neil Robinson is doing an economic feasibility study to see if this model can be applied in Western Australia.
In the Atlantic Ocean, one of the Canary Islands known as Tenerife lies sixty miles off the coast of North Africa. There lives one of the pioneers of the European Tourism for All movement, Jose Ignacio Delgado. His work has strengthened the legal rights of Europeans with disabilities. He has promoted the civil rights and improved access to services for Canary Island residents with disabilities. He consults with the tourism industry and his accessibility directory for Tenerife is a model sophisticated online resource offering tourism information for travelers with disabilities.
Farther north in the Atlantic, the United Kingdom is developing accessible tourism very rapidly since their anti- discrimination act has come into force. One especially well-done project is the online travel agency and accessible destination datable known as the “Good Access Guide” by Richard Thompson. Richard is one of the 92 colleagues from around the world who I asked to help me research this talk and who have contributed to the online discussions we have going in Brazil, Canada, and the United States on the five themes we will discuss in our Breakout Sessions at this conference.
Also at this conference, we will learn about Japan’s leadership in accessible travel. Takayama city is only one example of the way Japan is teaching the rest of the world how to live with a spirit of inclusion. Their unique contribution is to recognize that older citizens benefit from the accessibility that makes a place livable and attractive to tourists with disabilities.
Architects, and their students, from the Rhode Island School of Design take a different approach. They are linking environmentally sensitive -“green” – construction methods and building materials with accessibility. They are creating an accessible eco-lodge at St. John’s in the US Virgin Islands This resort, known as Concordia Estates, allows people with disabilities close access to unspoiled nature.
The tourist hotels in Hawai’i have gone beyond simple compliance with the American with Disabilities Act. They can provide guests with comfortable accessible rooms, advise them on accessible places for food and entertainment, or arrange for things such as a specialized beach wheelchair to rent that will set mobility disabled visitors loose on the beach.
All these tourist destinations have learned the cruise ship secret of success. Disabled tourists will come when they find variety, value, service, and accessibility woven together seamlessly. They are learning to include people with disabilities as free and equal participants in leisure activities.
Now, notice something about these examples. Hawai’i, St. John’s, Japan, te United Kingdom, Tenerife, and Tasmania are all islands. It seems that innovation in accessible tourism, at this point in history, is flourishing in places that are manageably small and administratively unified. Is it possible that an island like Taiwan will become a world-class example of accessible tourism? The fact that we are all gathered here for this conference makes me think that Taiwan plans to become just such a leader.
We have a name for the model that is developing in the areas that I just mentioned. We call it “Inclusive Destination Development.” The phrase combines two other phrases “Inclusive Development” from economic development practice and “Destination Development” from the tourism industry.
The World Bank promotes “Inclusive Development” as economic and regional development that allows for full social participation of people with disabilities.
“Destination Development” is the phrase used by the tourism industry to describe the strategic application of planning, development, and marketing resources to enhance a location as a desired destination for travelers. Inclusive Destination Development uses the word “Inclusive”, in the sense it is used by the World Bank, to mean “allowing for the full social participation of people with disabilities.”
Thus, Inclusive Destination Development is “the systematic and strategic application of resources to make a location become a destination of choice for persons with disabilities.” The goal of Inclusive Tourism is to accommodate the broadest range of tourists possible without stigma or the need for special accommodation. Inclusive Destination Development is the primary means of establishing Inclusive, or as we will be calling it at this conference, “Accessible” Tourism.
Inclusive Tourism is one important means through which persons with disabilities participate in society at a distance from their homes. At the same time, the presence of these tourists provides a model - and source of funding - for the inclusive practices and infrastructure necessary for these human rights to be extended to local residents. Inclusive Tourism partially funds Inclusive Destination Development. Inclusive Tourism is an example of democratization and the dissemination of human rights through a market-driven mechanism.
Earlier I mentioned the concept “path of travel.” When we design places so that people with disabilities can enter, participate in, and leave freely we also allow access for economic resources and the very concept of freedom.
At this conference we commit ourselves to building the Asian portion of this path. I look forward to building it with you. So do the millions of people around the world who will also come here to travel it.