For most of us, tourism is quite accessible and we tend to take our ability to embark on a vacation anytime for granted. All the vacation plans in the world are available to us on our smartphones, laptops or tablets. Depending on how much money we want to spend on travel and how long we want our trip to last, we can customise our dream holidays and avail ourselves of hired assistance at every step. There are countless websites with very user-friendly interfaces, the airport/railway station is a taxi ride away, we can book a tour guide online, and if there are any problems with documents, an agent will sort them out for a small fee. But what if we woke up one morning and found ourselves unable to do any of this without seeking help from a friend or family member? For people with disabilities, obstacles in the way of easy accessibility are a daily reality. Not only do they have to deal with harder lives in general – commuting to work, going shopping, attending music concerts – they are also largely excluded from the benefits of the developments in the tourism industry.
Needed: Some sensitivity
It is disappointing, to say the least, that huge strides have not been made in the direction of accessibility of tourism, especially as there are around one billion people living with some form of disability across the globe, according to estimates by the World Health Organization. Because of greater life expectancy, the number of elderly people in countries has also been on a steady rise. Tourism, like all sectors, must endeavour to be accessible to all – regardless of age, gender or physical status. Recreation, leisure and well-being should be available to all who are desirous of it, and the industry is responsible for mitigating physical, economic and societal barriers to the achievement of these goals.
The silver lining to this cloud lies in the fact that tourism in India is improving in terms of egalitarianism and the country has much scope to be a world leader in the field of equal access. For people of varying physical and mental abilities, parents with infants, elderly people, pregnant women and people with temporary disabilities, facilities are slowly being developed that address the specific needs of all, and not just of able-bodied travel enthusiasts.
To improve this scenario further, websites need to be compatible with common text-to-speech software. A progressive step that monuments in India are already taking is the use of Braille signage alongside text, providing information about sites. There is also a need for innovation in terms of the methods in which material about cultural heritage is presented, to make information easier to acquire for tourists with learning disabilities. Other facilities that should be improved upon include ramps, handrails, tactile signage, accessible toilets, dedicated staff, doctors and nurses, personalised assistance, airport and train station transfers, wheelchair-accessible local transport, accessible restaurants/bars, adapted hotel rooms, access to a pedestrian environment, and availability of disability equipment – such as toilet raisers and electric wheelchairs on rent.
Art galleries, museums and photo exhibitions can also be made available for those with visual impairments through the use of new technologies such as 3D printing. Of course, all of this has to be accompanied by strong sensitisation programmes for staff and able-bodied travellers. All these facilities also need to be cost-effective, especially as people with disabilities usually get the short end of the stick in terms of employment opportunities and wage levels.
Holds promise, not a burden
It is important to note that accessible tourism is not an obligation for a country, but an opportunity. It benefits everyone, leading to a more vibrant economy, richer experiences, greatly increased revenues and happier citizens. The accessible travel market presents tremendous opportunities for businesses that are ready to make the required efforts. People with disabilities travel more frequently during the low season, usually travel in groups and tend to return to a place they feel comfortable in – making it profitable for destinations to especially cater to them. Indian monuments also have the potential of generating immense domestic and international revenue from more accessible sites, and The Qutb Minar and Red Fort have already won the most accessible/best maintained monuments award from the Ministry of Tourism, highlighting the success of access improvement projects.
In a broader sense, we need to start believing that anyone can be a tourist. There is a need to produce more literature about equal tourism – more people on wheelchairs in advertisements about Goan beaches, more stories about party destinations for the elderly. Improvements in tourism need to work in tandem with social innovation. People with disabilities have always had to negotiate with taboos and perceptions, especially in the Indian context. The government, entrepreneurs and citizens should work together to create an environment where everyone is treated as equal and as human beings who just want to take a long trip to an exciting city once in a while. Access to the resources and wonders of this world is a right everyone should have.
Source: The Hindu Business Line