Israel is relatively accessible for people with disabilities, but more advertising and tourist information is needed. Michal Raz-Chaimovich "The world treats accessible tourism (for people with disabilities) as a niche market, but it's not a marginal segment at all. If you think about what happens in life, at some stage, we'll all have some disability," says Martin Heng, accessible travel manager at travel guide company Lonely Planet. Heng visited Israel as the guest of the Ministry of Tourism for the IMTM International Tourism Conference in Tel Aviv.
Heng says that the market for accessible tourism is one billion people. If the people accompanying such tourists are included, the number is at least double that, and it is estimated that this is a segment that can bring countries hundreds of billions of tourist dollars. In the US alone, tourists with disabilities spend $17 billion, and there are 80 million people in Europe with disabilities, a number projected to grow to 120 million in the coming years. "One in every five people has some disability, and this number is growing as life expectancy becomes longer," Heng says. "It is a common error to distinguish between people with disabilities and people without them, but there's always the age factor. Half of the people who retire will have some kind of disability and the proportion will rise to 65% of people over 70 and 80% of people over 80. At some stage, we'll all have a disability. In the UK alone, the annual turnover in accessible tourism is £12.4 billion. In Australia, the accessible tourism market is bigger than the market for incoming tourism from China. Everyone is chasing after Chinese tourists (pre-coronavirus), but the numbers for accessible tourism are higher. If just one family member has a disability, the entire family becomes part of the segment. I have a wife and three children, so a place that is inaccessible loses five people," Heng, who is wheelchair-bound, explains.
Travel instead of babysitting grandchildren
In order to find the places accessible in each country, a great deal more preparatory work is needed than for an ordinary trip. "I know a tourist from Australia who took two years to plan an African safari. I flew to a conference in Thailand, and landed at Chiang Mai International Airport. There wasn't a single wheelchair there. That's something you have to know in advance," he says. Heng lists a number of countries that are especially accessible, such as Spain (mainly Catalonia and Madrid), the UK (mainly Scotland), Portugal, and the US. "The right way is to persuade businesses to be accessible for economic reasons, instead of forcing them to be accessible by law. The Scandik Swedish hotel chain has adopted standards under which everything will be accessible. They gained get an enormous market, a mass market, not a niche market," he declares.
One of the most prominent trends in global tourism is the rise in the age of travelers, as life expectancy becomes longer. "The baby boomers don't want to babysit their grandchildren; they want to travel. Many of them have disabilities. Bear in mind that people with disabilities have as much desire to travel as anyone else, and like many others, some of them prefer to travel in the countries in which they feel safer," Heng says.
A trip for a person with a disability, as for any tourist, usually begins with the airline. Airlines, however, are mainly concerned with reducing the space between seats and getting rid of bathrooms in order to crowd more seats on their planes. Airlines are legally required to offer wheelchairs adapted to the aisle between the seats, and depending on the size of the airplane and the destination, they must offer accessible bathrooms. "We really feel the reduction in space between seats. Large people also feel it. A tourist with a disability does not benefit from the competition in the sector when he often has to cut back his choice of airline. In the US, the airlines have to report publicly the damage they cause to the passengers' wheelchairs, and this also enables us to prioritize a specific airline," Heng says.
"Globes": How accessible are the world's leading tourist sites?
Heng: "Most of them are all right. The problem is with small businesses and some of the heritage sites or other ancient sites. It's not impossible to make them accessible; you just have to be sensitive to the matter. I have a list of hundreds of places that can be improved through cheap available solutions. You just have to want this, and to realize the market potential..
In Israel, accessibility is an opportunity
4.55 million tourists visited Israel in 2019, 10% more than in 2018, and this number is partly a result of marketing work appealing to specific groups, such as gay tourism and vegan tourism. "Israel can, and should, market itself as a destination for tourists with disabilities," says Yuval Wagner, founder and president of Access Israel, which promotes access in Israel for all types of disabilities and in all areas of life. "The situation in Israel is relatively good," adds Ministry of Tourism lifestyle brand manager Dana Gazit. "The Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law contains some advanced provisions. There are accessible rooms in hotels, and the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority and the Jewish National Fund do very good work on their sites. The Yad Sarah organization allows tourists to rent equipment for disabled people, and many places voluntarily make themselves accessible. There is a strong economic aspect here, and as more concerns realize the importance of accessibility, they will understand that this is mainstream tourism, not niche tourism, including in internal tourism."
People with disabilities are estimated to account for 18% of the population of Israel. One third of them have medium or high-level disability. "Accessibility should cover the entire travel experience," Wagner says, "from ordering the flight to transportation information and attractions at the destination. One sector that does realize the potential of tourists with disabilities is cruises. A great deal is invested in this on cruise ships, because they understood that it's a big target market that can be a source of profit. To a great extent, Israel is one of the most advanced countries in this aspect, and there's an opportunity to promote the country as an accessible destination. There is now more awareness of accessibility in public transportation and hotels. There's much to improve, but there's already something to work with. "
Wagner also stresses the importance of information on the degree of accessibility, not just what is legally required. "On sites like Booking.com and Tripadvisor, you can search for hotels with a filter category for accessibility. It's not always reliable, but it's an indication. In Israel, the law requires service training and mandates publication of accessibility arrangements on a business's website and call center. This doesn't always appear in foreign languages. Businesses have to realize that making information accessible is critical. Accessible businesses obviously have an interest in making their accessibility known, but I also expect a business that is not accessible to publish that information. It's better for such a business if people with disabilities to avoid it, rather than have them come and complain.
"The problem starts when we get to group tourism, and in Israel, we see two bottlenecks: there aren't enough hotel rooms, and there are few buses with wheelchair lifts. Large hotels may perhaps have five accessible rooms; they should have twice as many. You have to distinguish between accessible rooms and friendly rooms, which are enough for many people with disabilities. I expect them to understand the potential profit, and when they make things accessible because it's legally required, they shouldn't treat it the same way as required expenses, such as kosher food. Let them look at the numbers, and they'll realize that it's an investment, not an expense," Wagner says.
Is an accessible trip more expensive?
"The more severe the disability, the more expensive the trip, in renting a car with a wheelchair lift, for example, or selecting a hotel that will be more convenient. Even in Airbnb, they started displaying accessible apartments only after pressure was applied, and there's still growth in demand and justification for increasing accessibility. The Ministry of Tourism in Israel understands the problem, and has even set up a department for it. We're taking about global potential of a billion tourists with disabilities. We can settle for a small fraction of that, and it won't take that much of an effort. You need to increase accessibility advertising in multiple languages, and provide more hotel rooms and adapted buses, and then we won't just see vegan and LGBT tourism here."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on February 11, 2020
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