Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
Inclusive and accessible travel goes far beyond marketing talk and diversity-box-ticking—it’s about designing experiences, accommodation and transport options that don’t exclude anyone. Lola Akinmade Åkerström asks the experts what the travel industry can do to catch up.
Martinique Lewis and travel writer Sassy Wyatt were both looking forward to a vibrant graffiti tour around one of England’s largest cities. As expected, the tour was awash with vivid imagery, splashed across walls and buildings for the participants to enjoy.
But the tour had overlooked one issue: Sassy Wyatt is blind, and Martinique Lewis just so happens to be a diversity in travel consultant who advocates for inclusion across various aspects of travel. “I grew up with a blind grandmother, so I understood the part I would have to play on this trip,” says Lewis. “Descriptions and specific instructions go a long way with someone who is visually impaired.”
Today, many destinations and travel brands are beginning to realize they aren’t as accessible as they’d presumed—and their biggest weakness is awareness of the various needs each group requires. “People just don’t take every kind of traveler into account,” says Lewis. Mostly because the right questions aren’t being asked. Lewis shares these basic yet crucial questions as examples:
Why isn’t your furniture sturdy enough to hold anyone of any size?
Why do you have cookies and food cooking so close to your lobby during Ramadan in a place that is predominantly Muslim?
I’m deaf. What else does your airport have in place to alert travelers that the gate is now boarding, besides the PA system?
While travel collectives such as The Black Outdoors and Diversify Outdoors continue to shine spotlights on the lack of cultural diversity in the outdoors, the conversation has expanded to include other marginalized groups within travel.
For Annette Richmond, the force behind the dynamic Fat Girls Traveling (FGT) community, she needed to create a safe space for avid travelers who live in bodies marginalized by society. When asked what inspired this community, Richmond says, “From figuring out if a seat belt extender is needed on an airplane to which airline offers a free second seat for customers of size, there wasn’t a place I felt comfortable asking those questions and I couldn’t find the answers anywhere.”
“Being forthcoming with the activity level and sharing the details of the itinerary will help people of all sizes make the right travel choices for their bodies and abilities.”
Simple worries include fitting comfortably into restaurant chairs or finding working elevators. Weight and size restrictions are another concern for members of the FGT community. Questions such as, “Does the raft or zipline have a weight restriction? Does the harness have a size restriction?” are common. “Being denied an experience due to weight or size is embarrassing and deflating,” adds Richmond. “As a fat person, I do a ton of research and read all the reviews before I commit to something. The last thing I want to feel on my trip is humiliated because of my body.”
Many of these issues can be easily remedied by companies offering more transparent indicators and alternatives. It’s not difficult for companies to become more inclusive … they just have to decide to do it.
“Fat people are not a monolith,” says Richmond. “Many of us are very active and have no issues with walking or stairs, but some people do have mobility issues. Being forthcoming with the activity level and sharing the details of the itinerary will help people of all sizes make the right travel choices for their bodies and abilities.”
This sentiment is echoed by Summer Michaud-Skog, who founded Fat Girls Hiking while out trekking with her former girlfriend along the Oregon coast. “We are queer, and fat, and women, and we don’t look like typical hikers,” says Michaud-Skog after experiencing leering from fellow hikers. This inspired the birth of her body-positivity community for outdoor enthusiasts.
Concerns range from slowing down group hikes, finding the right gear and outdoor clothing in her size, to hoping there are kayaks that can accommodate her. “I’m no longer waiting for brands or companies to include me—I’m creating it myself,” says Michaud-Skog.
While representation in the outdoors for marginalized people matters, having diversity in marketing campaigns is no longer enough. “There needs to be diverse people in decision-making roles within outdoor brands and companies,” adds Michaud-Skog. “In my ideal future, everyone will feel safe and welcomed in the outdoors.”
Many companies and brands often substitute asking pertinent questions with assumptions. “A common mistake made by hotels is assuming same-gender couples mistakenly booked a double bed,” say David Brown and Auston Matta, the duo behind the site Two Bad Tourists, which promotes LGBTQI-friendly travel guides and experiences around the globe.
Wheelchair user Cory Lee notes that people with disabilities spend over USD $17 billion on travel annually, and more accessibility-focused tour companies are launching around the world.
As with other marginalized groups, the needs of the LGBTQI community are very specific, sensitive, and can result in safety issues in many destinations. More companies are realizing this and creating LGBTQI-specific travel opportunities including hotels, events or group trips. “Brands and destinations that better meet the needs of the LGBTQI community will be rewarded with loyalty, which will result in repeat business and visits,” add Brown and Matta.
When it comes to mobility, people requiring wheelchairs have a different set of challenges that can limit access to certain dream adventures. In spite of this, Alvaro Silberstein and Isabel Aguirre made the first-ever wheelchair accessible trip up Machu Picchu, Peru, to prove that exploring the world adventurously from a wheelchair isn’t impossible.
Founded in 2018 by Silberstein and Camilo Navarro, Wheel the World aims to make adventures and outdoor exploration accessible for people with disabilities. Some of their trips include remote locations such as Easter Island and trekking in Torres del Paine, Chile.
For Cory Lee, who uses a wheelchair, his journey into being an advocate for accessible travel started while researching accessible things to do in Australia. “I quickly noticed that there wasn’t a lot of accessibility information online for Australia at the time,” he says. “I knew that there needed to be a space for accessible travel information.” This led him to launch Curb Free with Cory Lee in 2013 to inspire others to break out of their comfort zones and see the world, no matter their abilities.
Air travel remains challenging for wheelchair users because of tiny restrooms and the risk of wheelchair damage during storage, to name just a couple of concerns. “Various organizations, such as All Wheels Up, are working to make flying more accessible,” says Lee.
Lee notes that people with disabilities spend over USD$17 billion on travel annually, and more accessibility-focused tour companies are launching in destinations such as Morocco, Costa Rica and Romania that were once considered “inaccessible”. Lee had dreamed of visiting India since he was a kid, “but there was zero accessible transportation until just a couple years ago,” he says. “I finally visited and it was such a surreal experience. I was surprised that India was so accommodating.”
“The halal travel market is growing so fast and when there is demand, there will be supply. It’s simple business.”
Accommodating the needs of different travelers can easily be done. Avid traveler Elena Nikolova, who founded Muslim Travel Girl (MTG) after converting to Islam while living in the UK, realized the limitations and stereotypes Muslim travelers face and decided to create a resource. “I wanted to share and encourage more Muslims to travel to build bridges and to help them explore without breaking the bank,” she says. “MTG was the first to talk about hijab-free holidays and do-it-yourself Umrah pilgrimages to Mecca, which now are so common. We’re proud of that.”
When it comes to including Muslim travelers, many companies and brands assume all Muslims share the same beliefs and lifestyle. Of course, the reality is that Muslims can’t be painted with one brush due to their different ethnicities, nationalities and backgrounds. MTG encourages its readers to travel and demand services such as alcohol-free rooms, available prayer mats, women-only activities, halal food options and extra privacy.
The younger Muslim generations are exploring more faith-based and conviction-led options such as ecotourism and volunteering while abroad, and more Muslim women are traveling solo as it becomes more acceptable. “The halal travel market is growing so fast and when there is demand, there will be supply,” says Nikolova. “It’s simple business.”
Simply put, companies who choose to ignore the demands of the ever-evolving travel industry and don’t put measures in place to support marginalized people will quickly become outdated.
The travel industry is slowly moving in the right direction, and the pace of change can be accelerated by diversifying its leadership. “It’s equally important to employ the people who make it their job to advocate for marginalized communities,” adds Richmond, who is collaborating with Intrepid Travel to craft special Fat Girls Traveling trips.
Travel undoubtedly still has a long way to go when it comes to inclusion and accessibility. But like a baby taking its first steps, wobbling along on unsteady feet, the travel industry’s first few strides towards a more inclusive future is still a beautiful thing to witness.