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A look into Canada's accessible travel market

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  •   12-18-2014  3:42 pm
A look into Canada's accessible travel market

It’s 10 a.m. and Tarita Davenock of Tarita’s Travel Connections in Vancouver is busy making urgent arrangements via phone for a client in Mexico.

While it’s easy to picture a hard-to-please customer seeking a resort room with a better view, Davenock is in fact helping a traveller find a room that can be accessed via wheelchair, after the accommodations originally advertised as accessible were not so.

For a growing number of Canadian and international travellers, the issue of accessibility is becoming a big consideration when planning a vacation. For example, with the growing number of Baby Boomers reaching an age where both travel and increasing health issues affecting mobility are more likely, the market in accessible travel could very well go from a niche to a larger segment of the overall travel industry.

Tarita Davenock of Tarita's Travel ConnectionsWhile Davenock, who was diagnosed with MS at age 29, helps coordinate trips for travellers both disabled and able-bodied, she said Tarita’s Travel Connections was founded to address this growing market, particularly to find and provide travellers the accessibility information for a destination needed before going.

“I find it difficult that no one is serving this niche market, and that’s what led me to my present career,” said Davenock, who previously worked as a social worker. “I’ve travelled extensively, so I fell into the job I had for 15 years and would notice that travel suppliers would visit us, showing the latest magazines and I would be the one waving my hand and saying ‘would this work for someone in a wheelchair?’ I’d get the same response – ‘we’d have to look at that on an individual basis’ or ‘no, it probably wouldn’t work.’ It led me to do what I’m doing.”

The accessible travel experience isn’t limited to cruises or sun destinations, said Davenock, citing stories of travellers in wheelchairs traversing the winding mountain trails leading to Machu Pichu or the Himlayan slopes of Nepal, where she said a pair of her accessible travel colleagues – one using a wheelchair, the other blind – currently operate.

“It’s becoming necessity,” said Davenock of increased accessibility in travel. “It’s necessary that things be done to accommodate you, so they’ve decided they want to share their country with other people who have disabilities.”

Keith Rashid of March of Dimes Canada told PAX that the organization, which supports and advocates on behalf of Canadians with disabilities, currently works with travel partners in arranging trips for travellers facing such issues.

While many consist of local weekend getaways such as Niagara Falls, Rashid said that a few times per year, larger packages of 15-20 travellers are assembled to bring Canadians to destinations such as Florida, Bahamas, Belize or on cruises; a Caribbean cruise aboard the MSC Davina recently wrapped up.

“It can be difficult to arrange such a trip on their own,” said Rashid, “so we’ve decided to take that on and organize it in-house.

Organizing such trips with companies like Air Canada, WestJet and Royal Caribbean, Rashid said, “It’s all about taking away the stress and the worry. Where there’s a will, we’ll find a way; it also takes away the stigma that people with disabilities have to be confined.”

Flight Centre is also actively involved in providing such travel options through its Accessible Travel program, which has since become aligned with the Canadian Paralympic Committee as its Official Travel Partner (the program is also offered by Flight Centre in other countries where the company operates). Flight Centre spokesperson Allison Wallace said that the company estimates that nine per cent of Canadians would qualify as accessible travellers, accounting for both those with mobility issues as well as travel companions. According to Wallace, that estimate is strictly for travellers with accessibility challenges; when other special needs are factored in, the market could be much larger, she said.

According to Flight Centre accessibility travel manager David Lyons-Black, there’s an ‘even split’ between both independent accessible travellers as well as those accompanied by a friend or family member, travelling to various international destinations. Group packages are also available through the company.

Lyons-Black said of the initial concerns that an accessible traveller may have – including those related to transportation of mobility equipment such as wheelchairs – the question of how accessible a particular destination is remains at the top of the list. Both Davenock and Wallace agreed some countries are more accessible than others. While certain destinations, including Barbados, Jamaica and Germany (which actively promotes ‘barrier-free travel’) are known for being very accessible, others are still catching on to the accessible market or have older architecture/infrastructure which can make travel difficult for those facing mobility challenges.

Lyons-Black said that he is “asked all the time about whether an 'Eagle Arm' is available to get clients into their seat on a plane, whether nurses are in destination, wheelchair repairs shops are in destination, and if there’s raised toilet seats or roll-in showers.

“Similar to any travel agent it's about knowledge and expertise on available product, so all of these details, if our travel manager doesn't know them, will make the effort to find out directly from the hotel or airline,” added Wallace.

With the market growing and Davenock citing travel companies in the U.S. and Europe catching on, the question arises of why there are relatively few companies in Canada embracing this industry segment.

“I think part of it is the stigma that it’s not lucrative – ‘if you’re disabled, you’re poor,” said Davenock, “but it’s so false, because the Baby Boomers are retiring and they’re the ones who have the time, desire and money to travel."

She believes the key to increasing the number of companies focusing on this market is education, and has partnered with the U.S.-based Special Globe travel organization to bring the message of accessible travel to industry professionals.

“Travel should be inclusive, not exclusive,” Davenock said.