Accessible Tourism is the Tourism Industry's Bicycle

Strange title?

While the title may appear to unusual it goes to the very heart of the issue for travelers with a disability and a tourism industry that has so far been unable to see beyond the end of its nose in relation to one of the fastest growing opportunities it has ever had.

The title comes from a very astute analysis of management systems by the celebrated business writer Alistair Mant in his book "Intelligent Leadership"*

"The essential difference between the frog and the bicycle, viewed as systems, lies in the relationship of the parts to the whole. You can take a bicycle completely to pieces on your garage floor, clean and oil every single part, and reassemble the lot, confident the the whole thing will work perfectly, as a bike, as before. The frog is different. Once you remove a single part, the entire system is affected instantaneously and unpredictably for the worse. What's more, if you go on removing bits the frog will make a series of subtle, but still unpredictable, adjustments in order to survive. This sort of system, at the level beneath consciousness, wants to survive and will continue for an astonishing length of time to achieve a rough equilibrium as bits are excised - until it can do so no longer. At that point, again quite unpredictably, the whole system will tip over into collapse. The frog is dead and it won't help to sew the parts back on."

How is the frog and the bicycle metaphor relevant to Accessible Tourism?

In order to understand why Accessible Tourism has not become part of the tourism offering or part of the industry's culture we have to apply the metaphor in reverse.

The Tourism Industry is a System



Tourism has often been described as selling dreams and indeed that is what the majority of the industry attempts to do by developing products and services that give clients an "experience". The industry has evolved to develop a vast array of experiences the cover all aspirations and budgets.

The industry is sophisticated and can match destinations, scenery, cultural and food experiences. Adventure comes in all forms and all levels of experience and budget.

The key to offering these experiences is in the pulling together of a number of key components, accommodation, transport, selection of tour guides, attractions, natural landscapes and scenery, food and transfers. These components are packaged and marketed to the right demographic and today sold through both traditional and on-line distribution channels.

The experience is the key and brochures, image selection and sales staff and agent training reinforces the "experience" a client can expect for their chosen holiday.

In other words developing a tourism product is "frog like". It is a well developed and integrated system where every component depends on all of the others.

Process of evolution

The frog, like a tourism system is also capable of systemic evolution. Products have changed as the market and expectations have changed. The tourism experiences have matured as the market has demanded more in depth experiences that showcase destinations as opposed to older products that were more whistle stop tours. 

New markets have developed in Adventure tourism, Eco-tourism, Cultural tourism with new niches in medical, health, relaxation and meditation holidays. So too has the development of multi-level experiences to suit different budget levels from backpacker through to 6 star all inclusive packages.

The role of market segments

Historically product development has been easy, as it has tended to evolve around market segments. A segment is a group or activity that has unique expectations and it is reliant on the members of that group having a relatively homogeneous set of requirements. That has seen the effective development of niches such as Eco, Cultural and Adventure tourism. Segments are well understood by the tourism market and have a relatively short gestation period to bring to market.

The distribution channels, as well, understand segments and product training is relatively straight forward. Marketing is similar and again imagery plays a key role in painting a picture of the expected experience in the clients mind.

Accessible Tourism is not a Segment - so what is it?

All sorts of terms have been used to describe this growing market from Barrier Free Tourism in the United Kingdom, Accessible Tourism in Australia, Access Tourism in New Zealand. All of those terms have their foundations based on the physical term of “access”. More often than not those expressions also have a narrow interpretation as people think of them applying only to travelers with a mobility related disability.

More correctly what we are describing in talking about Inclusive Tourism is an environment where people of all ages and abilities are felt welcome and wanted as customers and guests. Access should only be the enabler and the focus should be on the guest and their experience. There should not be an arbitrary line drawn in the sand that distinguishes a certain level of "ability" as something different from other visitors. 

Accessible tourism covers every existing tourism market segment and all aspirations for experiences. More importantly those expectations are to be able to enjoy a destination on equal terms with family and friends. The industry doesn't draw a line, for example, between those visitors who want to hike 10 miles every morning and those who just want a leisurely stroll along the beach. 

"So I go..and I relish in the next trip..the next challenge that I WILL over come. I am not a wheelchair sports jock-never raced in my chair or played tennis or rugby or wheelchair basketball. Travel and love is how I survive. I take my love and my will with me and I look strangers in strange lands in the eye as I roll by and I am saying to myself and to everyone who sees me that WE are not pathetic, sad, miserable cripples…

WE are here and we want to share the world with you….it is up to me to show you I will is up to you to show me I am welcome."

Deborah Davis

Read the full article.

In terms of contribution to the overall tourism dollar, accessible tourism is growing rapidly, fueled by an aging and retiring population with both the money and time to make an impact on the industry.

Accessible Tourism is already a major tourism sector with Australian research putting its value at 11% of the total industry market share. US research by McKinsey & Company predicts that by 2015, the baby boomer generation will command almost 60 percent of net U.S. wealth and 40 percent of spending. In many categories, like travel, boomers will represent over 50 percent of consumption. The impact on the Inclusive Travel sector is significant as over 40% of them will be retiring with some form of disability, raising the total value of the Inclusive Tourism sector to over 25% of the market by 2020.

Accessible Tourism is a Bicycle that doesn't fit

ramp from hellIf the economics are so compelling and the aging population is so well documented, then why don't we have an accessible tourism product within the industry.

Unlike the evolution of other tourism products, where the market demand has created the innovation and product development, accessible tourism has been driven by regulation. Around the world disability discrimination and building codes have driven access as a compliance/human rights issue. It has fallen into the same category as emergency exits and fire suppression. As a result it has been seen as venue by venue cost of doing business. In most cases those modifications and compliance issues have been applied on a percentage basis, been expensive and perceived by the industry as having low utilization and very poor return on investment.

It is using a bicycle approach to an industry that understands building systems that deliver experiences. Worse, the bicycle approach has delivered facilities that are "add-on" or "special" and draw attention to the people actually using them. They are not inclusive and rarely look at even a venue wide approach let alone a whole destination. A resort may have an accessible room, but because the disabled traveler is not viewed as an active visitor the rest of the activities at the resort are not viewed as being required by travelers with a disability. The resort has no comprehesion of the travelers needs or aspirations and in many cases the visitor is simply viewed as a passive add-on to a "normal" group.

The bicycle doesn't have a rider.

The bicycle approach also results in the facilities that do exist not being included into the marketing, product packaging, distribution and training. It is never reflected in the imagery associated with the destination.

Turning the bicycle into a frog

To date, with the continued improvements in the requirements for accessibility world wide, we have seen the bicycle get better and better. But a bicycle it still is. More recently there has been a growing emphasis and discussion around the implications of the retiring baby boomers and the potential size of the accessible tourism market. 

VancouverIn the wake of the London Paralympics, VisitEngland have made a concerted effort to raise the economic profile of accessible tourism and its value to the English tourism market. The European Commission is starting to recognize that tourism has to cater for the aging population and is now the first to realize the strategic need to change the tourism supply chain not just the end use venues. See
VisitEngland Announces New Marketing Campaign to 
Develop and Promote Accessible Tourism
European Commission Call for Proposals: Design, Implementation, Promotion and Marketing of Accessible Tourism Itineraries

This missing link is still education of the industry. That education has to be broader than just the business case, it has to go to the heart of the tourism product development cycle and start teaching the industry about the customer needs of the traveler with a disability. Further that training has to be aspirational and match the same catering for dreams approach that is used in all other tourism products. It has to stop being about the physical access and more about what the customer wants to experience and those additional little things that make a huge difference to the traveler with a disability's experience. Further that education has to include how that experience interacts with their traveling companions and how as a group they want to share the experience. Much of the experience of travel comes from sharing the memories later as it does from the trip itself.

Only when the industry and local service providers understand the detail of what they are providing and the expectations that they are seeking to fulfill will they be in a position to develop packaged product and tour offerings. Only then will the distribution channels have something to sell and have the training available to front line staff who will be able to match customer expectations to a potential travel offering.

So too advocacy organizations have to refocus their attention and go back and develop an approach to the industry that not only talks about the business case but offers a comprehensive suite of products and services to help the industry understand the market, the latest concepts in Universal Design to minimize the capital costs, the latest adaptive equipment available to enhance the the visitor experience, how to market effectively and use the right imagery, and finally train staff in how to make a disabled visitor welcome. In many senses the advocacy bodies have to go back and develop Inclusive Tourism 101, and in so doing have to learn as much about how to talk to the industry as the industry needs to learn to adapt to people with a disability.

The focus needs to shift away from self fulfilling Accessible Tourism Conferences that expound the same old business case data to an already converted audience. The same applies to developing and maintaining separate databases of accessible tourism destinations. Both of those activities perpetuate the "bicycle" mentality and does not encourage the industry to mainstream an accessible tourism product.

The bicycle of accessible tourism has created infrastructure, but it now has to be turned into a living system to actually deliver an Inclusive Tourism product.

"What if the first question we asked was, “What is so unique about this situation that it justifies exclusion?” instead of, “How much does it cost to make it accessible?" 

Scott Rains.


*Mant Alistar 1997, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, Sydney


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