Tourists with disabilities first for four global cities
With one in six people living with a disability, ensuring that cities around the world are accessible to all is vital. But which cities are doing it best, and how? What does a tourist with a disability look for when choosing a city to visit? This is important not only to the people with disabilities but also for cities themselves as they seek to tap into a large and growing accessible travel market. In 2018 alone, the value of the spending power of disabled people to UK tourism had been estimated at £15.3 billion; while 27 million tourists with disabilities in the US took 81 million trips and spent US$58.7 billion in that same year.
As tourism recovers from the ravages of the pandemic, the business case for not excluding the 1.3 billion people living with disability – one-sixth of humanity – has become even more compelling. A wide-ranging survey by the Valuable 500 of 3,500 People with Disabilities in five countries – the US, UK, Australia, China, and Japan – around their travel habits and experiences provides invaluable insight into this question. The survey not only highlights the barriers to travel for People with Disabilities (PWD) but respondents were also asked to nominate the cities they found most accessible and why.
Singapore came on the top of the list for being an easy travel destination compared with much of Asia, partly due to the excellent infrastructure and amenities, and partly because English is the lingua franca. It has a high degree of accessibility that makes it especially attractive. Singapore has accessible public transport, making getting around the city a breeze. Unlike most underground metros, there is level access to every carriage on Singapore’s MRT which affords wheelchair users and people with impaired mobility both independence and dignity. In addition, more than 95 per cent of pedestrian walkways, taxi stands and bus shelters are accessible to people living with a variety of impairments, and more than 85 per cent of public buses are wheelchair-accessible. One of the island nation’s major tourist attractions, Gardens by the Bay, a unique and enthralling complex of horticultural displays, is fully wheelchair-accessible. Its newest key attraction, a phenomenal architectural feat connecting the colonial-era City Hall and former Supreme Court to create the National Gallery, is a model of accessibility. It has a comprehensive, downloadable access guide that allows visitors to plan their visit and source information on the accessibility of specific exhibitions or festivals.
Las Vegas, where tourism accounts for 20 per cent of its GDP compared with a national average of six per cent, is home to 14 of the world’s largest 25 hotels and, according to wheelchair blogger John Morris. The city has one of the highest concentrations of accessible hotel rooms and suites in the world, with hoteliers eager to attract the disability dollar. Several of its hotels have designated specialists to assist guests with disabilities. Las Vegas has a wide variety of accessible accommodations, and almost 50 per cent of the accommodation is in proximity to attractions. Casinos and showrooms cater well for both wheelchair users and visitors with other impairments: staff are trained to assist vision- and hearing-impaired people at the gaming tables, and craps dealers will place bets for those who need assistance. Bingo can be played using Braille or large-print cards or even using electronic machines. Several hotels even offer free gaming lessons with sign-language interpreters. Its other main attractions are also accessible, including the High Roller Ferris Wheel, the tallest observation wheel in the world. It’s even possible to go go-karting with hand controls. Two of the most famous attractions – the Fountains of Bellagio and the Fremont Street Experience – are not only accessible but also free.
Sydney, according to Julie Jones, publisher of Travel Without Limits, the world’s only print magazine dedicated to accessible travel, is a wonderfully accessible city, with its main attractions, including most of the historic National Trust properties, accessible by wheelchair. The iconic Sydney Opera House has a suite of accommodations for people with access needs, including accessible performances, access programmes, and tailored mobility tours. Lifts are available at the Harbour Bridge. The majority of the public transport system is accessible to wheelchair users, including our Sydney ferries. There are kilometres of level accessible paths around the harbour linking the Opera House to Darling Harbour and beyond. Being able to walk or wheel alongside some of the best views of the city is a treat, she said. The city’s public transport network, which includes ferries, buses, light rail (trams), and rail, is almost wholly accessible, – assistance from drivers is often required. In addition, vision-impaired visitors will benefit from wide, well-maintained pavements with plentiful tactile ground surface indicators, as well as the Legible Sydney Wayfinding System that employs more than 2,100 tactile (for touch-reading) and Braille street signs, information pylons, and digital technology. The provision of accessibility information is where Sydney scores highly. In addition to the Transport New South Wales accessibility page, the city has an Accessible Sydney site that is chock-full of useful information arranged thematically: museums and galleries; history and heritage; outdoors and wildlife; bucket-list attractions; and getting around.
London also scores highly for its accessible transport links, while almost half chose the capital because its cultural attractions have good accessibility support and facilities. Many major museums and galleries have placed a particular focus on accessibility, including the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Modern and the Natural History Museum. There’s also a wealth of information available for PWDs to plan holidays and excursions.
Visit London’s Accessible London page is a rich resource that links to a professionally audited, searchable database of detailed access guides to attractions, hotels, shops and restaurants, among other venues. Disabled tourists say London, as with any large city, can be challenging to navigate as a wheelchair user, but there are pockets of excellent accessibility that have me returning to the same areas time and time again. Most forms of public transport are very accessible, with buses wheelchair-accessible, as are all tram stops and most ferry piers. However only about one-third of Tube stations (and half of over-ground stations) have step-free access, so careful planning is necessary before travelling. A fully accessible and useful app allows you to plan a journey and use the step-free category to give you the most accessible routes via bus and Tube across London. Transport for London also embraces the hidden disabilities sunflower program, which is gaining wider recognition in the UK.