Imagine checking-in to a hotel and finding that there’s no access ramp for your wheelchair or you cannot use the shower because the sides are too high. These are just a few of the issues disabled travellers are challenged with every day. This Saturday, December 3rd is the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities and it’s important to take time on this day to reflect on the many challenges that need to be overcome in order to make travel accessible for all. To learn more about accessible travel, I sat down with Alejandro Esperón, Spain’s Director for ‘Turismo para Todos’ (Tourism for all) at the travel agency Viajes 2000, a pioneer in developing services for people with disabilities and the official agency of the Spanish Paralympics team.
How did this initiative start and what triggered it?
In 1985, ONCE, which is the Spanish national organisation for the blind, joined with our travel agency and the accessible tourism project was born. In 2015 Grupo Barceló’s travel division acquired Viajes 2000 from ONCE. Our travel agency now organises and implements ONCE’s programs as well as those of other entities that cater to people with disabilities.
What services do you offer?
We offer a wide range of travel services specifically for people with disabilities. In order to verify and ensure that our customers will not face accessibility challenges, our staff visits each hotel or leisure establishment to carry out rigorous and thorough checks of their facilities.
What training was required of your staff to serve this group of people?
Training has been an ongoing process since 1985 and today we continue to learn. Our experience includes going to the hotel, sitting in a wheelchair and moving around the grounds. Or putting on a mask that will not let us see, to really understand why a misplaced extinguisher can be a problem for a blind person.
What were your key takeaways?
When we first set out on this mission, it was apparent that there was a strong need for improvement to accessibility. For example, we would often find hotels without adapted rooms. Initially, many hoteliers were resistant to change, but when we showed them that there is a vast market of disabled and elderly travellers to cater to, they changed their mind-set. Most importantly, we showed them that improving accessibility was simply the right thing to do. Despite how far the travel industry has come, there is still a long way to go.
What’s your advice to further increase accessibility in travel for people with disabilities?
In order to achieve wide adoption of accessibility standards, improved training for all those who work in tourism is necessary. Training is also an opportunity to improve the management of tourism services that cater to disabled people. Unfortunately, there is still no specific field of study when it comes to accessible tourism, but I am optimistic about the future.
What advice would you give to companies to increase inclusion of people with disabilities?
I am proud to say that over 20% of Viajes 2000’s staff are people with disabilities. I can tell you that they are highly motivated and committed to making tourism more accessible for everyone. Hiring them is a win-win situation for everyone.