Lines move to meet growing disabled market

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MIAMI -- Cruise executives at the 2003 World Congress for Travelers with Disabilities and the Mature here reported increases in the number of disabled passengers as the cruise industry moves to accommodate this emerging market.

Cruise lines began to step up their efforts to attract these travelers about two years ago, according to a cruise session at the congress, which was sponsored by the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH).

"In the last couple of years, I've noted a huge increase in the growth of groups with special needs," said Kay Stowderman, manager of the access and special needs department at Carnival Cruise Lines. "Our numbers for groups of blind and deaf passengers have really taken off in the last two years. So there's really a market out there for these groups."

She noted, for example, that the line recently hosted a group of 60 blind guests, including 20 service dogs.

"It was a huge success," Stowderman said. "And the group has booked again for next year."

In expanding its capacity for disabled passengers, she said, Carnival is in the midst of a retrofitting project, adding more wheelchair-accessible cabins to existing ships, the last of which will be completed by the end of this year.

The program also includes adding braille signage, accessible seating for the main show lounges and lifts from the spa to the upper sun deck.

Through its sensitivity training program, Carnival also has added a purser assigned to implement guests' special needs.

"We get a lot of great feedback from that," Stowderman said.

Laura Amor, access specialist for Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Royal Celebrity Tours, said increases in the number of disabled guests on the company's ships and land tours have prompted the streamlining of the reservations process for those guests.

Res agents no longer are transferring travel agents to the request desk for special requests, she said, but faxing travel agents a new form that asks for all essential information about a client's special needs for accommodations or services.

The agent then has the option of awaiting a written confirmation that the requests have been fulfilled or asking the access desk to confirm through a return phone call.

Royal Caribbean began placing a new emphasis on accommodating travelers with disabilities in 2000, Amor noted, launching a $5.5 million project for upgrades to equipment and training.

All 16 ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet will be upgraded by December, she said; Celebrity's nine vessels will be complete by the end of next year.

Among the new amenities are braille menus; braille nameplates at the bottom of stairways will be installed by year's end.

For the deaf or hard of hearing, strobe fire alarms are available in staterooms along with text phones. In addition, the company is developing a text pager that will transmit all ship announcements.

On Royal Caribbean's new Voyager-class vessels, wheelchair access onto tenders has been designed into the ships, she said.

As for Royal Celebrity Tours, the company provides lift access to the second level on its rail cars in Alaska, Amor said, along with the assurance of accessible hotel rooms.

Jennifer McCloskey-Alvarez, who runs Holland America's access and special needs program, said HAL also began expanding its access programs about two years ago.

The line launched a retrofitting program on its older vessels, extending accessible cabins to higher categories as well as inside cabins, she said, adding that seven ships have been completed.

In addition, six HAL ships are equipped with a custom-made lift system for tenders. A lift rises from a tender and attaches to the ship, enabling a passenger in a wheelchair or scooter to roll onto the lift before descending into a secure area of the tender.

This year, two more ships will be retrofitted with the system, McCloskey-Alvarez said.

The line's new Vista series of vessels -- the first of which was the Zuiderdam -- will have two of the lifts, she said, adding, "the tender-lift system has really done a lot for us."

For its Alaska land tours, McCloskey-Alvarez said, HAL last year purchased four domed rail cars that are wheelchair accessible on two levels, including accessible lower- and upper-level dining.

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