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Accessible and sustainable tourism – a match?

wheelchair user with an assistant on a hanging bridge

By: Tobias Streitferdt

Our project promotes travel to developing and emerging countries. Given the climate crisis, we therefore ask if people with disabilities leave a larger ecological footprint due to the need for more service and/or have more impact on the local cultures they travel to? 

The Wheelchair-traveler- an environmental burden? 

The approach to travel is the decisive factor of ecological and social impact. Therefore, in this article, we describe what sustainable tourism means and compare it with the way most of disabled people travel.  

Accessible and sustainable tourism

Accessible tourism refers to universally designed products and services that allow disabled people to experience their vacation equally and with dignity (Source: Buhalis & Darcy, 2011).

Sustainable tourism takes into account its current and future economic, social and ecological impacts, while meeting the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities.

How does accessible and sustainable tourism fit together?

Many disabled people are individual travelers. This is the only way they can adapt their travel and stay to their needs. They rarely plan all-inclusive packages and use local tour operators and service providers who can adapt the travel offer and know the local situation best. They usually employ local staff. In addition, disabled people travel less frequently and travel shorter distances during their trips. They often stay in one place for a longer period of time because the logistics are more complicated. Thus, their carbon footprint is often better than that of all-inclusive tourists. 

Especially in developing and emerging countries, many hotels are not yet equipped to meet the needs of disabled travelers. However, due to low labor costs and flat construction, they can often react very quickly, modifying their rooms, restaurants or leisure offerings. This applies to both construction measures, transportation, care and/or assistance. Many of the extra services are carried out by local companies, so keeping the revenue in the community. 

In this picture, you can see a ramp that was built in a small hotel in Melaka, south of Kuala Lumpur. It had no accessible rooms, but all rooms were on the ground floor, alas with two steps at the entrance. As the wheelchair user wanted to stay for a week, the hotel invested in this simple modification. A local blacksmith welded this metal ramp, which is now available to all wheelchair users visiting the hotel. 

Is accessible travel  low carbon? 

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), five percent of global CO2 emissions are caused by tourism. Seventy-five percent of all CO2 emissions attributed to tourism come from transportation, primarily travel to and from the holiday destination.

Therefore, the most environmentally friendly tourist is the one who stays at home. However, it is utterly unrealistic to expect humanity to stop traveling. The COVID-19 pandemic has already highlighted the detrimental economic and social consequences of a tourism standstill in numerous regions of the world. Not to mention, travel is vital to relaxation, cultural exchange, and societal interaction. Consequently, our focus must be shifted toward more sustainability when traveling. And here we find further parallels to the travel behavior of many disabled people.

Long journeys are difficult for disabled people, especially for people with physical disabilities. Consequently, they prefer destinations close to home. If it has to be a long-distance trip, then they undertake these less frequently and stay for a longer period of time.

As wheelchair users still have to change from their chair to the airplane seat, which is very laborious and uncomfortable for many, they prefer trains, car or buses. Those transport vehicles are less carbon intensive than planes.

Source: National German Environmental Agency 2008: Comparison of the carbon intensity of different vehicles

Also on site, disabled people make fewer excursions, choose these more consciously and often use public transport, as long as it is accessible. They prefer to cover greater distances with an e-wheelchair or a handbike or an active wheelchair, to avoid inconvenient transfers to a car. 

How to make my next accessible travel sustainable?

Disabled people generally travel more sustainably because they travel more consciously and statistically less frequently. However, they can also consciously focus on social, ecological, and economic sustainability during their vacation:

1. Choose destinations that can be reached by bus or train

The shorter the journey and the more environmentally friendly the mode of transport, the less CO2 is emitted. Therefore, try to plan your arrival by bus, train or your own car, rather than by plane. If it has to be a long-distance trip, then undertake it less frequently and stay for a longer period. You can compensate for the emitted CO2 through platforms like Atmosfair which invests in ecological projects.

2. Book sustainable accommodation!

Just as the type of accommodation varies, so too does their sustainability. Pay attention to energy-saving measures, eco-labels, and organic, regional, or even vegetarian cuisine. In many cases, large hotel chains have a greater negative impact on the society, economy, and environment of a holiday region than do smaller living units and family-run hotels. Therefore, it doesn’t have to be a huge hotel complex. Smaller accommodation often provides just as good a service and behaves ecologically and economically more sustainably. As a guest in a family-run hotel, you actually support the local economy, not just some global corporation that pays little to no taxes locally. 

3. Sustainable Travel in the country

Choose a destination that already offers many recreational activities on site. The closer the distance to sights, bathing opportunities, etc., the less you will need to use local transportation. If you want to visit several places in one country, try to choose fewer places and stay there for a longer period.

Book excursions with local providers. Your hotel and the tourist information will be happy to provide you with these. Also, pay attention here to organic seals or possibly sustainable activities like the cooperation or support of local initiatives and environmental projects. By doing so, you support the local economy, support environmental efforts and get to know the local people. 

Sustainable tourism and wheelchair travel can go hand in hand and these practices should actually be taken into account by all travelers, not just wheelchair users.

Tags: Activities in a wheelchair

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