By Apoorv Kulkarni
India offers a bouquet of varied travel experiences – religious and heritage destinations, medical tourism, wellness, adventure sports, rural tourism, etc., yet many of these experiences remain inaccessible for millions. Several families, such as Raj and Pooja’s (names changed) face challenges when planning their vacation. The couple’s twelve-year-old son lives with a visual disability and Raj’s mother recently underwent a hip replacement surgery. They struggled to find a destination, which would be both ‘accessible’ and enjoyable for the entire family.
‘Accessible tourism’ caters to the needs of a full range of consumers including Persons with Disabilities (PwD), Senior Citizens and cross-generational families. The concept addresses institutional and attitudinal mindsets that drive the tourism ecosystem to ensure that all individuals are able to access all tourist locations. It also benefits pregnant mothers, parents travelling with kids, senior citizens, persons with temporary disabilities or chronic illnesses, etc. who all have varying degrees of accessibility needs. Given the large population of persons with unmet accessibility needs today, there is an urgent demand for tourism to be made more accessible.
India’s tourism industry offers tremendous potential. In 2018, India recorded 1.85 billion domestic tourist visits. Further, the country welcomed 10.56 million foreign and 6.87 million NRI tourists. However, globally, there are millions of persons living with a disability, senior citizens, and other travellers who face unique challenges right from trip planning to finding suitable accommodations. The overall tourism sector has contributed around $206.8 billion to the Indian economy by 2016. With more than 26.8 million people with disabilities living in this country, this is a huge underserved market and the industry is still missing a billion-dollar opportunity in the form of ‘accessible tourism’.
In India, accessibility challenges surface right from the first step – trip planning. Transport operators, hotels, tourist destinations, etc. often fail to provide information about accessibility in their advertisements, websites or communication. This forces one to engage in time-consuming direct outreach for clarifications such as: Does the hotel have a ramp? Is there any wheelchair accessible transportation available in a city? Will sign language interpreters be available? Is there any audio guide to enable a person with blindness to experience a heritage site? Despite the outreach, travellers still face breakdowns or unanticipated inaccessible sections during their trip. Furthermore, the customer-facing staff although hospitable, often lacks adequate training or exposure to provide accessibility-related support. This ordeal, inadvertently, negatively impacts the entire travel experience of persons with accessibility needs.
Raj and Pooja’s experience described above represents a largely untapped market. According to the 2011 Census, there are 104 million senior citizens (aged 60 or above) with around 27 per cent of households having at least one senior citizen in their family. Similarly, India is home to around 26.8 1 million PwDs and 8.31 per cent of households have at least one PwD member. This is likely to be a conservative figure with non-government sources estimating the PwD population to be 5-8 times of the Census 2011 figures. Furthermore, in 2018, India hosted 3.03 million foreign tourists (nearly 30 per cent of all foreign tourists) who were 55-years or older. It is time that the tourism industry factor in these statistics.
Globally, accessible tourism is big business. According to a 2015 report by Open Doors Organization, this segment was estimated to be worth US$ 34.6 billion in the United States. Similarly, in 2015, the European Network for accessible tourism (ENAT) valued the European accessible tourism market at €150 billion (US$ 166 billion). Many cities such as London and Paris, even with their mix of old and new infrastructure, have managed to improve accessibility while maintaining a ‘sense of place’ and ‘identity’. These examples are worth emulating.
In India, the Ministry of Tourism included select provisions to improve the accessibility of the tourism industry in the Draft National Tourism Policy 2015 and the Sustainable Tourism Criteria for India 2016. Increasingly, many Indian entrepreneurs are working to make tourism accessible for all. Neha Arora, who grew up with parents with disabilities, is the Founder of Planet Abled. The company organizes domestic and foreign accessible tours. It provides innovative facilities such as mobile ramps to make heritage sites accessible for persons with locomotor disability, and 3D models of monuments to enable tourists with visual disabilities to experience the architecture. However, there is a lot more that needs to be done by the Government and other actors within the industry to nurture accessible tourism.
Based on international best practices and discussions with frequent travellers with accessibility needs, here are seven recommendations to improve the accessibility of the Indian tourism industry:
- Increase awareness about accessible tourism opportunities amongst industry actors
- Formulate Universal Design and accessible tourism standards for travel and tour operators, accommodation providers, and tourist destinations
- Encourage service providers to invest in accessible tourism by highlighting its economic impact
- Publish a roadmap to improve the accessibility of top 15 tourism circuits in India
- Conduct training and sensitization programs for the industry professionals and enable them to provide world-class service to travellers with accessibility needs
- Encourage industry actors to promote accessible tourism through their marketing materials
- Most importantly, proactively engage with women, Senior Citizens, PwDs, and other stakeholders right from user needs discovery and design to implementation and assessment phases of the above six recommendations.
With increasing life expectancy, there is a higher likelihood that many of us will experience living with a disability at some point in our life. Additionally, senior citizens will continue to be a part of the family unit as young adults are expected to care for their old parents. We all will have varying levels of accessibility needs at different points in our lives. Therefore, accessible tourism will improve the quality of travel experiences for all of us. Today, on the eve of the National Tourism Day, the country has an opportunity to double-down on accessibility and improve inclusivity within the industry. In the process, India can unlock a billion-dollar growth driver.
(Apoorv Kulkarni looks after the Accessibility track at the Ola Mobility Institute. The opinions expressed are his own.)