Will Accessible Tourism soon be the largest travel market?

paralympics wheelchair rugby 2012

A year ago last week, I was lucky enough to attend various events at the Paralympics in London. Along with much of our population I was swept along with the spectacles and passion, and loved everything right down to the way Channel 4’s ‘superhumans’ advert helped us see these extraordinarily talented athletes in a new light. All the same, and as I wrote a few weeks ago, I don’t think enough about accessibility issues when it comes to travel. However, writing a fortnightly blog for WTM Responsible Tourism, and knowing accessibility is one of WRTD 2013’s main themes, has made me read articles I’d never typically encounter. And today, it has shifted how I see accessible tourism and influenced my attitude to responsible tourism as a whole.

Accessible tourism stage 1: Obligation

This shift in understanding has three stages. First: the ‘Obligation’ stage. This is the mindset where business owners feel obliged – generally by legislation – to fit disability access technologies and adaptations into their properties. For years this was also the prevalent attitude when it comes to environmental technologies – people grudgingly recycling, fitting ‘expensive’ low energy lightbulbs etc. We add on whatever is necessary as an afterthought. It’s less about being responsible and more about avoiding risk and regulation.

Stage 2: Opportunity

time to change perceptions of disability
(Photo Courtesy PhotoAbility)

The second stage is ‘Opportunity’. This month in the UK, the minister for Disabled People Esther McVey has written to councils warning they risk missing out on an £80 billion market in accessible tourism if wheelchairs are restricted from the coast. With over 10 million disabled people in the UK, it’s good business to make as many services as possible accessible. Worldwide, the accessible tourism market is 1.3bn people, which when their friends and family are considered, increases to a market of 2.2bn people. Together they control over US$8 trillion in annual disposable income. This is not a niche.

It is also growing and may soon be the biggest single section of the market – simply because our population is ageing. McKinsey predicts that by 2015 the baby boomer generation will command almost 60% of US wealth and in the travel sector, boomers will account for over 50% of consumption. Now consider this: over 40% of these baby boomers will be retiring with some form of disability, which increases the value of this sector alone to over 25% of the market by 2020. How might attitudes towards accessible services change when the market includes our parents, our older friends, and before too long, ourselves?

Stage 3: Ordinary

Welcome to the third phase – ‘Ordinary’.

We are seeing this tipping point with the eco-lightbulb – no longer the exception, but now the ‘ordinary’ bulb. Recycling is almost just what you do. At a business level, responding to issues like climate change and water stress has moved in little more than a decade from being the job of one marginalised CSR officer, to an opportunity to capture a rapidly growing market, to now influencing how companies and economies are designed – embracing concepts such as the circular economy, biomimicry and the triple bottom line.

How does this manifest in the accessible tourism sector? It starts with a change of terminology – shifting from a concept of accessibility to one of inclusivity and universality. Disability activist Scott Rains asks: “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?”

universal design inclusive principles
Universal design is based on inclusivity and ease of use

He and others say we need to approach projects from the outset using the principles of what is known as ‘universal design‘, where we design our lodges and buses and tours inclusively, so the maximum number can benefit. Rather than one special table at a picnic site adapted for wheelchairs, you ensure that all tables are designed to allow wheelchairs to roll under one end. It needn’t be a difficult journey. It just involves taking a different approach.

I believe this is the mindset we should aim for across all forms of responsible tourism – good, fair, sustainable behaviour needs to be presented not as niche, but as norm. Of course we are energy efficient. Obviously our staff are fairly treated, our communities supported. Let those who choose not to be responsible explain what makes them so unique that an exception can be made. Not the other way round.


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Jeremy Smith is a writer, speaker and sustainable tourism consultant. He is co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports tourism organisations in declaring a climate emergency and working together to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Science Based Targets. He is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018), and co-founder of Travindy.com, the travel industry sustainable tourism website news site. He consults widely on sustainable tourism strategy and communication, with recent clients including Bruges Ommeland, GSTC, English National Parks, Tripadvisor, the Travel Foundation, and the European Travel Commission. He is a member of Travalyst’s Independent Advisory Board and was a member of Rotterdam’s International Advisory Board in 2019, helping develop a new vision for the city’s tourism.


  1. A great article, however, the economics of the growing Accessible Tourism market will not alone change the culture and understanding on the industry.

    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.

    In 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.

    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.

    Bill Forrester
    Travability.travel and PhotoAbility.net

  2. James Price says:

    A very interesting article and great to read 🙂

    I agree with the three stages of the process completely, I do not disagree with the above comments in terms of the heart of the industry and education needs to change and is paramount.

    From my experience and looking at it from the hotel prospective, over the years researching and working in the industry and traveling globally as a wheelchair athlete; stage 1 not only makes hotels / businesses feel obliged but also puts those potential destinations off from advertising their product in fear they don’t or won’t meet legislation, or open them up to complaints if they do. We have just launched http://www.AccessAllRooms.com which incorporates a 1-5 grading scheme and is designed to try and alleviate this fear by allowing the consumer to know and see what is there, for the hotel to be able to display what it has and not worry about trying to provide what it hasn’t.

    The end goal hopefully being to remove stage 1 by showing the hotels there is a market and actually is in their best interest to improve and provide more of those facilities, because it’s good business not just good corporate responsibility.

    Once this happens and more and more hotels choose to improve their facilities and actually advertise and sell those facilities, then sites like mine will be the stage 3 of the process. Access All Rooms while we build the content and database will specifically target the market we are trying to cater for – however once the accessible content grows then our site will be placed like any other hotel booking website – it just so happens to be inclusive to disabled/elderly people.

    One of the key reasons there is not a number of OTA’s or main stream operators targeting this market is because accessible rooms do not exist as a code on the GDS’s and therefore not available to book in real time like other rooms – something we are developing to make it a reality.

    Again, good article and interesting read.

    James Price
    Founder and MD of GAAS Ltd.

  3. Great post – See also the arguments by Accessible Tourism books Buhalis, D. Ambrose, I., Darcy, S., 2012, BEST PRACTICE IN ACCESSIBLE TOURISM : Inclusion, Disability, Ageing Population and Tourism, ISBN 1845412524 Channel View Publications http://ow.ly/pfMBJ and Buhalis, D. Ambrose, I., Darcy, S., 2011, Accessible Tourism Issues: Inclusion, Disability, Ageing Population And Tourism, ISBN 1845411609 Channel View Publications http://ow.ly/pfMDH

    Professor Dimitrios Buhalis
    Bournemouth University

  4. “It starts with a change of terminology – shifting from a concept of accessibility to one of inclusivity and universality “One day businesses in Ontario will move from AODA and compliance to inclusivity. AODA Is the first step towards this say OPC Inc’s accessibility team.

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