Accessible tourism is one of the fastest-growing sectors in travel, according to those in the know.
United Nations figures show that globally there are over 1 billion people with disabilities as well as more than 2 billion people directly affected by disability, such as spouses and caregivers. A great percentage of these people are keen to travel, the research shows.
Serving this growing market presents challenges for the tourism industry, but there's also great potential to provide a service for those with disabilities, according to tour operators in the U.S. and Africa, who all say Africa has been in high demand.
"We've definitely seen an increase in demand from people with disabilities for travel into Africa," said Dave van Smeerdijk, one of the co-founders of Natural Selection, who explains that more and more remote areas have become accessible and therefore the boundaries of possibilities are expanding.
"Africa is on everyone's radar screen. Why should people with disabilities be any different?" said Betty Jo Currie, Currie & Co. Travels Unlimited, a Safari Pros member. Holden Safaris' Jim Holden added that as the baby boomer demographic ages, inevitably tour operators receive more requests from clients with disabilities.
A Cape Town-based company, Southern Africa 360, has this year devised a number of itineraries to cater specifically to the special needs market. Collin Thaver of Southern Africa 360 said the demand has always been there, but the company saw an opportunity to identify the right service providers and locations for vacation packages.
According to Craig Beal, owner of TravelBeyond, one of the biggest reasons why more people with disabilities consider Africa is that many people who once had unfounded fears of Africa now have many friends and family members who have been on safari. "They now consider what was once impossible to be possible," he said.
Beal said he received two inquiries this year for mobility-impaired travel. "I currently have a client traveling in Tanzania and Kenya with a walker and cane. I am working on a trip for August 2019 for a client with a lightweight scooter. Both clients had initial concerns about getting in and out of safari vehicles and also when/how to urinate while out watching the animals on the Land Rover/Land Cruiser."
Also, Currie said that there are still important obstacles to consider for people with disabilities on safari as many limitations still exist. She acknowledged it can be difficult for people to get in and out of Land Rovers, for example, but she pointed out that the guide is there to help ensure this is easily managed.
Currie added: "Access to medical care can also be more limited, so plans must be made for the unexpected. And there are several flights as a rule with smaller planes, which are particularly difficult for those with disabilities. But the outcome is well worth all the effort."
However, Holden insisted that Africa in fact poses very few challenges for people with disabilities, as everyone in the safari business is eager and willing to make access easy for everyone. Holden cited an example of a client on a gorilla-tracking expedition in Rwanda who had to be carried by stretcher to see the gorillas. Holden said: "The stretcher-bearers cheerfully carried the client, singing and laughing all the way! At no time did the client feel a burden or different to any other client on safari. People in Africa have such a wonderful attitude to life, encapsulated in that well-known Afrikaans phrase, "n boer maak n plan" or more commonly in English, "Where there's a will, there's a way!"
The most important advice to travel agents booking trips for clients with disabilities is to get a full description and understanding of the person's disability, according to Holden. He said: "These are often sensitive and personal questions that agents are reluctant to ask their clients, but it is important that the safari operator properly understands the full extent of the client's disability, so as to provide the necessary amenities."
In addition, Holden said safari operators need to know about medications and dietary requirements for all clients but especially those with disabilities. He added: "And as obvious as it may seem, travel insurance is vital, as this will include emergency evacuation and adequate medical coverage."
Beal advised travel agents to ask their tour operator very specific questions about the number of steps into and within safari tents/suites, the distance from common areas to the tent/suite and the vehicles in use. He said: "The client also wants to know if the paths around the lodge are level, planked, stone, grass, sand etc. The client should be aware of the walking surfaces."
Thaver also suggested travel agents look beyond the safari experience when considering Africa. He said: "The biggest misconception is that Africa, as a whole, only has safaris to offer guests. This is a shame because, like other popular travel destinations, the region is multifaceted and thus able to cater to a wide variety of interests and budgets."
Although travel to Africa has become a lot more accessible, still more can be done. Beal explained he would like to see the upscale lodges throughout Africa have at least one room or tent with the type of amenities a hotel in the U.S. has that can accommodate guests with disabilities. Having at least one safari vehicle per camp that can accommodate mobility-impaired guests would be good.
Despite any possible obstacles, tour operators agreed that Africa is a wonderful destination for everyone.
Frank Louw, general manager at the Singita Serengeti House, said: "Everyone should be able to experience life equally, and if you can make that happen for all then that is wonderful. It is becoming easier for people to travel with disabilities. Infrastructure in Africa has come a long way, and guests know that they can get from A to B much easier than before."
Currie agreed and pointed out that the beauty of a safari experience is also part of its limitation. She said: "It is not an easy destination for those with disabilities; however, the end result is usually so worth the effort, we should encourage people with disabilities to go. It is our responsibility to have answers for those clients by working in close conjunction with our suppliers, hoteliers and guides."
Holden added: "Safari is such a relaxing and refreshing activity for everyone that more safari promotions need to include references to people with disabilities and explain how most safari activities are accessible to clients with disabilities. The best tonic for anyone is to breathe in the pure, intoxicating African air while sitting quietly watching Africa's wildlife go about its daily ritual."