Accessible tourism is a current theme, subject of numerous projects and studies. Morgane Schweizer's Bachelor's thesis, carried out between November 2021 and June 2022 in the Tourism program of the HES-SO Valais-Wallis, had the objective of analyzing the importance of training tourism reception staff so that they can inform and communicate adequately and effectively with customers with a mental, physical or sensory disability.
A literature review, 14 semi-directive interviews with tourism experts and professionals and a benchmark of existing training in accessible tourism allowed her to meet the following objectives:
Accessible tourism, an underestimated market
15% of the world's population has a permanent form of disability and this rate will, according to current demographic trends, constantly increase. In Europe, between 20 and 37% of the population have specific accessibility needs, including 40% of those over 65. In Switzerland, in 2020, there will be more than 1.8 million people with disabilities, i.e. 20.8% of the total population, of which 30% have severe limitations. In addition, people over 65 years of age, whose motor, sensory and mental capacities are most likely to deteriorate, represent 18.8% of the Swiss population (OFS, 2020).
Thus, accessible tourism, which allows people with a disability to participate actively in tourism, meets the demands of a growing market and therefore has a significant but under-exploited economic potential.
Importance of reception staff
With the same motivations, needs and desires for travel and leisure as able-bodied people, people with disabilities have specific needs that vary from one disability to another and according to the stage of the tourism experience. Accessibility and the quality of the infrastructure and accommodation are the first criteria that make a trip or an activity possible with a disability. The availability of adapted, reliable and understandable information, as well as qualified personnel, are also essential.
Accessible offers often have many shortcomings, especially in terms of communication and information provision. Reception staff, who play a central role in the tourism experience, are a key element in the development of accessible offers. Incomprehensible or incomplete information leads to disappointing tourist experiences, widening the gap between tourists with disabilities and ordinary people. Therefore, developing the skills needed to communicate appropriately with customers with disabilities is the key to making tourism accessible to all.
Benchmark of training courses
The training courses analyzed show that some countries offer a wide range of training courses in accessible tourism. Many projects at the European level have been or will be implemented with the support of the European Network for Accessible Tourism (ENAT). For example, the "T-Guides project" offers free online training for tour guides to conduct a tour adapted to language and learning difficulties. About ten countries are participating in the project and about 60 guides have been certified since the training started in 2012. The "In-Tour" project wants to set up training courses at Bachelor level in the form of specialized modules in communication and information for people with disabilities.
The analyses indicate that Switzerland is lagging in the development of accessible services, in particular due to a general lack of knowledge about the topic of disability and the potential of this market. Another problem in this context, highlighted in the report of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is the lack of coordination and cooperation not only between organizations but especially between the various levels of our Confederation and between the different regions. Secondly, a lack of knowledge of the different disabilities and the daily difficulties linked to them also explains the delay in Switzerland. The last point is a lack of concrete awareness of disability in society in general.
Significant delay and gaps
The majority of the 14 experts and tourism professionals interviewed recognize that Switzerland is significantly behind in the development of accessible tourism. Swiss tourism stakeholders have generally not yet recognized the economic importance of the niche represented by tourists with special needs.
The participants listed the same gaps and barriers limiting the development of the accessible offer in Switzerland: first, a lack of means and financial support, then gaps in national coordination, cooperation and communication between the stakeholders, reinforced by the diversity and complexity of the tourism sector. Furthermore, according to the interviewees, the lack of knowledge of the field of disability, of the needs related to the different impairments, as well as the lack of awareness, complicate the development of accessible tourism and reinforce preconceived ideas, which leads to a low interest in the subject.
Communication is the key
The majority of respondents recognized that communication with the customer is an essential and fundamental element in the tourism service chain. However, the lack of knowledge about the types of disabilities, as well as the accessibility and obstacles caused by the infrastructure in question, prevent the tourist experience from being completed. In addition, the various interviewees working in the field of reception acknowledged that they were not used to providing information to people with disabilities and described themselves as embarrassed when asked for it, a feeling reinforced by the limited choices available.
Solutions to be developed
To improve the accessibility of Swiss tourism, the solutions imagined by the respondents include raising awareness and training staff, a more precise and centralized inventory of information on the accessibility of a place or activity, adapted communication of the offer, as well as the design of products in a thoughtful manner, considering the entire customer experience and including the theme of accessibility for all.
Trained tourism reception staff who can provide a person with a disability with the right knowledge and communication methods to offer reliable and quality information would guarantee a better service and a superior tourism experience. Furthermore, according to the participants, if the staff were better qualified to respond to specific accessibility needs, the number of requests would increase, generating economic added value for the destinations.
The implementation of training in the field of accessible tourism is an essential step in the development of products and services and in the integration of people with disabilities. To encourage the development of this type of tourism in Switzerland, its economic and social potential should be better recognized. However, this requires a consequent preparation to sensitize the tourism actors to this theme, to awaken their interest in this type of training and to set up courses in an optimal way.
Morgane Schweitzer's Bachelor's thesis (in French only) is available to download hereunder.
Source of the illustration : www.tourismeaccessible.com