When four-time Paralympian and world traveler Sharon Myers entered her handicap-accessible suite in Dubai’s world-renowned Burj Jumeriah Hotel on a visit four years ago, she was amazed. It was the most luxurious room she had ever seen. Myers had no problems accessing the suite’s second floor on the elevator, no difficulty getting through the widened doors, and the bathroom’s roll-in shower, she says, was not only fully accessible, but it was absolutely gorgeous – covered in blue and turquoise tiles – the most elegant she had ever seen.
There was just one hitch – there was no bench in the shower, a must-have for any fully wheelchair accessible bathroom. And while Myers was able to travel between major sights and attractions, the windows of the van she was transported in were far too low for someone seated in a wheelchair to see out of, preventing her from viewing the skyline and the buzzing city around her.
These glitches may have been minor, but they occurred in one of the few destinations in the Middle East actively seeking to attract this growing segment of the tourism market – a regional “frontrunner” in terms of accessibility.
With disabled or special needs individuals representing one out of every 10 people, the purchase power of this population can make billions of dollars of difference in the tourism market.
“On the economic side, ignoring the needs of this segment of tourists means the sector loses out not just on the 30 million special needs tourists [in the Arab world], but an equal number, if not more, of those who accompany them,” according to Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, president of the Dubai Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) at the Third International Tourism Development Forum for People with Special Needs in the Middle East, held in Dubai. “For the Middle East’s tourism industry as a whole, this translates into a loss of $3 billion annually.”
“The world of tourism has to really and truly account for this group of people,” says Stephen Mydanick, director for corporate affairs at the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality (SATH).
The disabled population in the United States accounts for $250 billion in discretionary income, he says, a US Census Department figure that should have tourism operators’ eyes lighting up. More than 20 million people with disabilities in the US have traveled at least once in the past two years for leisure purposes, according to Harris Interactive.
Dubai is one destination that is certainly catching on, says Mydanick, who takes the concept of disabilities very seriously. It even has the potential, says Myers, to be an example to the world of what full accessibility can be like.
In other countries in the Middle East, however, where disabled travelers and tourism industry representatives say it is difficult for even an “average person” to get around, a traveler with special needs faces serious challenges.
“In Cairo, it’s a mess. You can hardly walk as a normal person down the street,” says Martin Gaballa, co-director of Egypt For All, a travel agency specializing in tourism for individuals with disabilities.
The company hosts between 100 and 200 such travelers per year, including wheelchair-bound travelers, the hearing impaired, blind, and people with “invisible” disabilities such as chronic or debilitating illnesses.
Generally speaking, says Gaballa, Egypt is not accessible to travelers with disabilities. Only a handful of hotels have wheelchair-accessible rooms, appropriate transportation is basically nonexistent, the streets are crowded and often unpaved, and even the country’s most popular tourist attractions and activities are not fully accessible, often lacking handicap-accessible bathrooms.
Only about four out of the Nile’s hundreds of boats can accommodate travelers with wheelchairs, and the bathroom at the Cairo Museum is located between two floors – where the elevator ironically doesn’t stop, says Egypt For All owner Sharif Hindi.
The country has, however, been making improvements and increasingly turning its attention to the growing special needs market, according to Egyptian Tourism Authority New York director Sayed Khalifa.
Pennsylvania resident, Dr. Erica Oldham, traveled with Egypt For All. While the company’s extensive services and knowledge allowed Oldham, who uses a wheelchair, to completely experience Egypt and access all the tourist sites in the country, she says it would be difficult, although possible, to travel independently.
“A disabled traveler could navigate Egypt without Egypt For All, but would need a strong assistant, an open mind, and should expect barriers and improvise when needed,” she says.
It is simple things that need fixing, she says. For example, Oldham was alarmed that the boardwalk connecting the pyramids had holes in it – “I couldn’t believe that a tourist site that is so well-visited was in such disrepair.”
“Facilities in the region aren’t the best for an average person, let alone someone with disabilities,” says Oldham, who has traveled through out the world with the help of her husband, including Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey.
While independent travel is possible, many major sights and attractions throughout the Middle East are often only accessible with the assistance of a specialized travel agency or a very capable companion.
“If you don’t have personal contacts, forget it,” says David Beirman, former director of the Israel Government Tourism Office in Sydney and marketing manager for the Greece and Mediterranean Travel Centre: Australia.
“You find a lot of Western countries are very sensitive to the issue of dealing with disabled travelers. In the Middle East, however, they tend to be very insensitive about it. The tour operators don’t want to touch them – it is very awkward particularly for group movement.”
Dubai and Israel, he says, are the exceptions.
“There is only one country in the whole Middle East that caters properly to [disabled travelers] and that’s Israel. In fact, most other countries in the Middle East are next to useless in that respect,” Beirman says.
Travelers arriving in Israel with a disability will be very well looked after, he says. The airports accommodate it, the hotels cater for it, and the tour groups are open to it as well.
“Israel is very disability-sensitive, and I think the country is almost unique in that way.”
Yael Kadosh, a representative for Israel For All, a travel agency specializing in tourism for travelers with disabilities, explains that historical and cultural sights in Israel are widely accessible, and the country has at least five or six public buses that can accommodate wheelchair-bound travelers. Awareness for the blind and those with hearing impairments is growing, and there is a wide selection of hotels and lodgings with handicap-accessible rooms. She does note, however, that while it is possible to travel independently in Israel, it is always better to take a specialty tour guide.
“Israel is a wonderful place for people with special needs, but you need to know where to go,” says Israel For All CEO Eli Meiri.
Not all sites are accessible yet, and information is needed for independent travelers to successfully get around.
As for Dubai, Beirman recognizes that it is probably better set up for special needs travelers than other destinations in the Arab world, but says it is not a market they are actively seeking.
“If they are going to have 15 million tourists by 2010, why would they want to cater for 100,000 disabled? They will have the facilities for them in the hotels and everything, but it is not something they are going to actively seek.”
Representatives from the special needs tourism industry, however, point out the emirate’s major moves towards inclusion, part of a “Tourism For All” campaign launched two years ago that has Dubai gearing up to become a major destination for special needs tourists – even vying for the title of most accessible in the world.
“Promoting destinations that are ‘truly accessible’ is now big business,” says wheelchair-bound global traveler, motivational speaker and specialist hospitality consultant Michael McGrath.
McGrath, who is also the chief executive of The Muscular Help Foundation and the only disabled person to have reached both the North and South Poles, estimates that based on an average stay of five days per year with an average of $100 spent per day, the revenue generated from tourists with special needs – one percent of Dubai’s anticipated 15 million visitors by 2010 – represents $7.5 billion per year.
“Dubai is a city on a mission,” he says. As Dubai’s accessibility stands today, however, “there is room for improvement,” says McGrath.
McGrath recently put the emirate to the test in a 24-hour Accessibility Endurance Challenge, aimed at answering the question: “Is Dubai open to all?” He attempted to visit as many as possible of Dubai’s tourist attractions, places of interest and hotels in a 24-hour period. Some of the sights on his itinerary were the Burj Tower, the Hilton Jumeriah Hotel, Mall of the Emirates, and the Dubai Heritage Museum.
“At present in Dubai, although there is some activity on the development and service provision towards special needs tourism, I believe that much more needs to be done on both a strategic and practical level to ensure that the city can deliver on its vision to become a truly inclusive barrier-free tourism destination for the disabled, wheelchair users and their families and friends,” wrote McGrath in his editorial review of the experience.
McGrath’s experience in one of two currently available accessible vans left much to be desired. He described them as “darkened cages,” a “health and safety hazard” that didn’t allow passengers to look out of the windows. Some of the tourist sites were missing disabled parking bays, pavement curbs were high with no visible slopes, and some of the hotels he visited lacked disability policies and any evidence of disability awareness programs.
On the other hand, the highly accessible Dubai Heritage Museum was McGrath’s favorite attraction, and he says that the emirate is making great progress in the field of special needs tourism. It is an extremely hospitable destination for travelers with disabilities, as awareness of the issue continues to grow.
Dubai has a tremendous opportunity to “lead by example,” says McGrath.
Right now, however, Dubai can only boast about its potential.
In fact, one of the major problems with attractions and facilities – not limited to the Middle East – is that despite efforts, service providers often do not understand and thus do not meet standards of full accessibility.
“Many companies claim they can handle [travelers with disabilities], but it’s not the case,” says Gaballa. “Hotels say they can accept them. The problem is when you get to the rooms, they have no idea what a bathroom or bedroom needs.”
Ramps can be too steep, doors too narrow, the height of the hotel bed too high. A bathroom can have all the right elements – but be missing a shower bench.
“Interpretation is one of the biggest problems that we face,” says Myers, who promotes equal access for people with physical disabilities through her organization, On a Roll. Myers also conducts on-site inspections for accessibility and is an adviser for accessible destination development.
“[In Dubai] service is excellent. They want to help, but it is understanding how to help that is key,” says Steven Wilkinson, founder of FindingWays.co.uk, a website that rates the accessibility of businesses and attractions in the UK, with plans to expand to the Middle East.
On a recent visit to Dubai, Wilkinson, who is himself wheelchair bound, says he was able to get around most of Dubai’s hotels with very “willing,” but generally untrained assistance from hotel staff.
In addition, “accessibility” can only really be measured by individuals themselves, based on their unique abilities and needs,” says Wilkinson. Some wheelchair-bound travelers can walk short distances, so a couple of stairs may not be a huge barrier. For others, however, that can make a site completely inaccessible.
“To be fully accessible is very difficult because there are so many disabilities; you can’t really consider them all,” says Wilkinson. “It’s really about getting consultancy and guidance from people who know.”
The hospitality industry can’t just ask someone in a wheelchair for advice, Myers says, but needs to consult a qualified person knowledgeable about how to accommodate a range of disabilities – including very severe cases, and special needs of the hearing impaired and the blind, which is often overlooked.
“I try to advise folks on how to make their facility accessible for someone like Christopher Reeves,” says Myers, who has been to many destinations that claim accessibility but simply don’t meet the necessary standards or understand the scope of the issue.
Service and willingness to help in Dubai, however, was top-notch, she says, and increased efforts have industry insiders confident Dubai is on its way toward accessibility.
In fact, at Myers’ suggestion, two accessible shower benches were delivered to the Burj the day she checked out.