How Can Tourism Become More Accessible, Inclusive and Sustainable?


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August 04, 2019

martin heng

“I have a wife and three children. If I can’t use a product or service, then the business loses not only one person’s business, but five.”

Martin Heng, Accessible Travel Manager & Editorial Adviser for Lonely Planet, emphasizes that people with disabilities and people with different access needs do travel, and are likely to travel with others.

These travelers represent, according to the Amadeus Accessibility Study, a "$70 billion market" just in Europe and the USA.

This fact alone would make a strong business case for investing time, effort, and resources needed to become more accessible and inclusive as a business. But beyond the economic imperative, there are important reasons for the tourism industry to take this segment seriously.

Based on Martin's presentation (originally recorded on July 18th, 2019 as part of the GSTC Sustainable Tourism Training Online Course) and relevant industry resources, below are some ideas and insights on how and why we should promote not just accessibility, but also inclusive tourism that benefits everyone.


Tourism for All: Including As Many Different Groups As Possible

Contrary to what many might think, accessible tourism is not just about providing facilities that are wheel-chair accessible.

Senior travelers. Parents traveling with small kids. Travelers with allergies and other medical conditions. These are all different types of travelers who have different degrees of accessibility restrictions and mobility requirements.

And a large proportion of travelers with disabilities have "invisible" impairments (such as cognitive or mental health conditions and long-term illnesses) that may not be, unlike wheelchair users, immediately obvious just by looking at them.

accessibility symbols
Image source:

When planning for and communicating about the accessibility features and services you provide, therefore, rather than simply using the "handicap symbol" (the ubiquitously used sign of a wheelchair user - the top-left pictogram on the above image), these various areas of accessibility needs must be considered and appropriately indicated.

Share on your website and brochures, for example, if you provide assistive listening devices on your tour, or if sign language interpretation is available within any of the attractions you visit.

"Tourism for All" is a concept that is addressing a growing segment of travelers with a diverse range of needs and requirements. What is "accessible" to one traveler who is a wheelchair user, for example, may be very difficult to access or completely inaccessible to another traveler with a different type of disability, mobility impairment or other conditions.

That's why becoming more inclusive is a more appropriate goal for the tourism industry than focusing just on "accessible tourism" (which can be vague and hard to define - accessible for whom?).

An inclusive tourism business or destination works to offer positive travel experiences to people with different needs by addressing them from various perspectives, and by providing design and service solutions that aim to cover as many different groups as possible.


Universal Design: Designing for Everyone, Being a Good Host

When it comes to being inclusive and promoting Tourism for All, a key concept that underlies the solutions to be implement by tourism businesses and destinations is Universal Design.

The definition of Universal Design is as follows:

Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design. If an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use, everyone benefits.

- Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, "What is Universal Design"

To understand where you need to improve in order to offer universally accessible experience for everyone's benefit, take some time to reflect on the whole customer journey from the perspectives of guests with different access needs and mobility requirements.

Think about how they experience travel - from the customer finding your business, to booking their trip, to arriving in your destination, to getting around during their stay. 

Are there steps to enter the restaurant that will make it difficult for customers with limited mobility? Does your hotel offer an accessible and easy-to-follow process for guests with disabilities to check in/out and get around within the property? And is your website designed for users with different needs (e.g. individuals with hearing or vision impairment)?

Businesses often have barriers that make it difficult for customers with particular access or mobility impairments to enjoy a certain product or service, because of the lack of awareness that those barriers exist.

And in some cases, businesses may be "rejecting" prospective customers without ever knowing. The 2016 Click-Away Pound study found that "71% of customers with access needs will click away from a website that they find difficult to use".

With all the different types of accessibility requirements, it may seem difficult or impossible to anticipate and accommodate the various needs of your customers.

But it's important to remember that in tourism we are in the business of providing services to welcome guests; and that it is in fact your responsibility as a host to cater to the needs of your guests and to make them feel welcome.

It's part of being a good host.

By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples' needs. Simply put, universal design is good design.

- Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, "What is Universal Design"


Inclusive Growth and Sustainable Development

With the growing importance of the accessible tourism market, and especially the spending power of this market segment including the "multiplier effect" (each traveler with impairment is likely to influence the purchase decisions of multiple members of their party), there is a strong economic imperative to be considered. To remain competitive, your tourism business and destination should be investing in universal design and inclusive solutions.

Beyond the economic imperative, however, there are also key reasons why inclustive tourism should be part of the global sustainable tourism agenda.

With an estimated 15% of the world population living with some forms of disabilities (World Health Organization, World Report on Disability 2011), and the changing demographic of the "rapidly ageing" populations around the world (WHO, Aging and Life Course), sustainable development can only be achieved through an inclusive approach to creating solutions and opportunities.

The United Nations' "Disability and Development Report: Realizing the Sustainable Development Goals by, for and with persons with disabilities" (2018) recognizes that "striving to achieve disability-inclusive development is not only the right thing to do, it is also the practical thing to do," as "the success of the 2030 Agenda requires a participatory and inclusive approach in which all stakeholders, including persons with disabilities, are engaged."

And that's why Tourism for All is highlighted in the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria, the baseline standard for sustainability in travel and tourism.

Source: Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC)

And in the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)'s Global Code of Ethics for Tourism. 

UNWTO global code of ethics for tourism
Source: UNWTO, Global Code of Ethics for Tourism - Article 7


Inclusion in the Work Place

Having understood the importance of striving for universal design and working towards becoming more inclusive, what can tourism businesses do to get started? What are some of the first steps?

One of the key challenges when considering steps to becoming more inclusive is to understand the diverse needs of your customers and your prospective customers.

The barriers that prevent some people from having a positive travel experience - whether they may be steps that cannot be climbed, signs that cannot be read, or buttons that cannot be reached - are hard to notice unless you put yourself in the position of those with particular disabilities and impairments.  

One of the most effective ways for businesses to understand the various accessibility needs of their customers is to have team members who know and represent the perspectives of those customers.

In short, hire people with disabilities. Empower them to help make your business more inclusive, both within your operations and through your products and services.

The UNWTO report "Recommendations on Accessible Tourism" (2013) states that "the staff of tourism establishments and related services should be prepared to know, understand and address the needs of customers with disabilities", and "the staff should include employees who know how to communicate with persons with sensory disabilities."

"The hospitality industry serves travellers from all over the world. The diversity of cultures implies a diversity of customer expectations as well. The hotels with a diverse workforce to cater to such a wide customer base hold a strong competitive advantage over others. ... [To] have employees that understand the needs and requirements of the customers and provide key insights into making properties progressively accessible is also a crucial element of the overall business strategy."

- Hospitality Workers Training Centre, "Disability Inclusion in the Hospitality Industry Makes Business Sense"

And here are three inspiring examples of businesses that have proactively implemented staff diversity and inclusion practices:

Lemon Tree Hotels Limited, India

lemon tree hotels india, tourism for tomorrow awards
Photo: Lemon Tree Hotels

Winner of the 2019 Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, in the category "Investing in People", Lemon Tree Hotels have focused on creating a socially inclusive work environment, bringing together people of different backgrounds, abilities and ethnicities to work as a unified team with a common goal. Lemon Tree supports "opportunity deprived" workers, including those with physical, social or economic disabilities, by creating and offering opportunities to realize their full potential and live with dignity.

Ilunion Hotels, Spain

Illunion Hotels
Photo: Illunion Hotels

Fifty percent of ILUNION Hotels' employees have disabilities. The hotel is committed to integrating its approach to universal accessibility not just in its services for customers with disabilities, but also throughout its business model, including its employees and suppliers. Illunion Hotels received the 2016 UNWTO Ethics Award for its work in the area of accessible tourism for all and its contribution to change attitudes, break down social barriers and make the accommodation industry more inclusive.

SV Tenacious

SV Tenacious Martin Heng Lonely Planet
Source: Martin Heng

Operated by the UK-based Jubilee Sailing Trust (JST), SV Tenacious is the largest wooden tall ship, and the only one of its kind designed and built to be fully accessible for people with disabilities or impairments (including wheelchair users).

Martin Heng, who joined Tenacious’ voyage from Sydney to Melbourne in 2018, describes his experience in this Lonely Planet blog:

"There are no passengers on JST voyages, only crew – made up of nine permanent crew members and 30 to 40 voyage crew – and everyone is expected to fulfil their duties to the best of their ability, whatever that ability is.

Experiencing a voyage on Tenacious (or her sister ship Lord Nelson) is an object lesson in the benefits of inclusion and accessibility. People living with a disability can challenge themselves, experience adventure and explore what they are capable of given the opportunity, while able-bodied crew members are shown that disability doesn’t necessarily mean incapacity."

- Martin Heng, "Setting sail for accessible adventure on the SV Tenacious" (Lonely Planet)

This amazing example of SV Tenacious is a good reason for all of us in the tourism industry to be asking, as Martin challenges us, "If they can do this, what excuse do we have not to make mainstream tourism operations more accessible?"

So a better question here, instead of “How can tourism become more inclusive?”, may be, “what are we not (yet) doing to make tourism more inclusive, and how are we going to push for change?"

TrainingAid is an international tourism e-learning company offering online training courses and skills development opportunities for tourism professionals.