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Best Practice in Tourism Accessibility and Inclusion: Case Study of Ireland

Best Practice in Tourism Accessibility and Inclusion: Case Study of Ireland

In this Blog, key NTG partner, TU Dublin, School of Hospitality Management and Tourism, explores accessibility, inclusion, best practice and skill requirements in tourism destinations. Paudie Healy, CEO of Universal Access Ireland, shares his insights and experiences of best practices in the sector.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than one billion people around the world live with some form of disability, and this number will increase as people live longer. The UN estimates that by 2050 approximately 1.6 billion people in the world will be over 65 years-old. In the European Union’s 27 states, more than one fifth of the population is now age 65 or more, and it is projected that the share of those aged 80 years or above will have a two-and-a-half fold increase from 2020 to 2100.


Developing best practice in accessibility and inclusion has become one important aspect of public policy in tourism. In 2018, the EU and the European Commission developed the ‘European Capital of Smart Tourism Initiative’ to strengthen destinations, create positive tourism experiences for all and promote the exchange of best practices in Europe. The initiative awards cities based in four categories: accessibility, sustainability, digitalization and cultural heritage and creativity. In 2020, Malaga and Gothenburg won the award, taking the lead in the continent and becoming example cities in sustainable practices and accessibility.  However, ending barriers in accessibility is still challenging in the industry and continued actions to bring awareness and inclusiveness when travelling are certainly needed.


What defines accessible tourism?


Accessible tourism involves ensuring that tourism destinations, products and services are accessible to all people, regardless of their physical limitations, disabilities or age. Requirements to accessibility include cognitive, hearing, mobility and vision dimensions, but it also includes any person that needs to access places with ease, for example, parents with prams, or seniors with mobility needs.  The need  for accessibility remains a problem in many destinations, which highlights efforts to create new experiences for visitors and to remove any psychological, physical or cultural barriers in destinations. According to the UNWTO, it has become more than imperative to redefine and redesign destinations and attractions, to promote inclusiveness and to ensure accessible tourism for all.  As Europe’s population ages, the future requirements for best practices in the sector will increase. Tackling barriers to accessibility promotes sustainability for the tourism industry, and quality of life for all travelers. The recovery of the sector after the Covid-19 health crisis must include solutions for a better and inclusive visitor experience, as it will impact significantly on the future of the industry.


Best practices in tourism attractions and destinations


Best practices in the sector include a wide number of initiatives such as architecture solutions and modernization of access to attractions for improving the visiting of people with mobility issues, the use of technology to enhance the experience for people with hearing or visual disability, improved services in the transportation, accommodation, and food and beverage sector and new ways of communication. The concept of universal design has gained importance in the sector, and there has been progress in destinations to improve competitiveness and quality of services. The concept of universal design is that the whole environment  is accessible and can be used by everyone, regardless of people’s age, size or disability. This includes public spaces such as streets, buildings and the organization of services and digital information technology for accessibility.


Among the good practices evaluation criteria present in the UNWTO policy for promoting accessibility and inclusive tourism development in public spaces and nature areas are:

  • Public and private collaboration
  • The elaboration of plans with the participation of representative entities of people with disabilities and experts in accessible tourism
  • Training related to accessibility, improving employee skills in awareness and to care for people with disabilities
  • The implementation of accessibility with a design process carried out by specialized people
  • Sustainability of the project over time
  • The possibility of replication of the project


All practices must bring solutions that will raise awareness of the needs and rights of travelers and make tourism more inclusive and accessible for all, overcoming challenges and guaranteeing an enjoyable travel experience.


Best practices in accessible tourism: interview with Paudie Healy, CEO Universal Access Ireland

Ireland is known for its diverse heritage attractions, nature parks and museums. In 2018 and 2019 the cities of Killarney and Tralee, in County Kerry, launched plans to become flagship towns in accessibility in Ireland. The changes include accessible pedestrian routes in all greenway and in cultural activities and spaces, implementation of universal design for city mobility, the redesign of public spaces, the improvement of technology for  Braille readers and those who experience hearing difficulties, the development of initiatives to encourage accommodation providers to improve accessibility, and training for tourism providers and for public awareness in accessibility.


Paudie Healy, the CEO of Universal Access Ireland, an organization that delivers solutions in Universal design and accessibility to the public and private sector in Ireland, has been working on improving accessibility in the hospitality and tourism sector. Paudie is an expert in accessibility and inclusive design, having been appointed to four national European standards committees, and as a non-executive board director of the European Network for Accessible Tourism. He is also a Universal Design taskforce member with the International Air Transport Association and a former appointee by the Minister for Transport Tourism and Sport in Ireland to the Government Tourism Leadership Group.


He talked to us about accessibility, inclusion and skills training in tourism and hospitality:


What are the key points of developing accessibility and inclusion in services or business?


“Having family members with a disability and aging, I have a good understanding of the barriers to participating  in tourism experiences, and where the divide is. I also know from a business perspective that businesses don’t realize that the barriers are there and once you explain to them, the solution sometimes can be very small. It doesn’t have to be a huge investment to make some changes:   disability and inclusion training, bias awareness, small changes can start the journey. It’s all about getting on the journey, and when you start to make those changes you start to understand the barriers. But the key thing for me, always, going into business or public service, it comes down to leadership and cultural change. You have to start at the top and if you embed leadership and culture at the top of the organization, at CEO and board level, Disability and age inclusion, person centric authenticity becomes part of the DNA of the business. It just becomes another objective in business, the same as finances, the same as health and safety, the same as marketing, accessibility and inclusion of people with disabilities and age just becomes part of your business. We then go on to develop a road map including strategy, action plans, implementation, monitoring, evaluation and reporting This gives a return in investments, environmental return, sustainability return and social return. There are very few things that gives you all of those but yet if you are on this path that’s what you will get from inclusion and a person-centered approach”.


What is the role of skills training to promote accessibility in tourism?

“I think training is paramount, because that’s where everything starts. You have to make sure that people are aware in the first place there are barriers in their organization, facilities, product, services or IT. But training has to be in every level and it even needs to form part of training with legislators, because they have to understand the policy they are creating. From a tourism perspective, it is vital from the state agencies that they understand when there is planning in destination development both nationally and locally, that nobody can be left out. We have some very key legislation, directives, standards international best practice now in Europe that backs that up. In the training, we have to meet every touch point in the customers journey like in Information – searching and bookings on websites, platforms and mobile, in Transport – vehicles, terminals, transfers, assistance, in Infrastructure –  external environment, attractions, accommodations, restaurants, streets and beaches, in Services  – hospitality, packages, tour guides, excursions, menus, activities and IT, in Public Services – public transport, public attractions, footpaths, parking, universal toilets  and once you create that awareness you start to develop different modules in customer service training. I will give you an example of simple hotel housekeeping daily service; when you are going to a hotel, everyone has the shower head set at the highest level. Does it not make more sense if you have it at the lowest level, so a person of any size, or stature, or ability is able to move it up to their own height, and have wet rooms that everyone can universally use? Through a universal design approach, we start that process and with that approach, we make sure that everyone can use the facility or get the service. It is clear that training is critical at all levels”.


Would you be able to highlight the key skills required to training in hospitality and tourism?


“If you are looking at a higher state agency level, first of all they have to understand users’ needs and different abilities. And it is critical when we talk about universal design, accessibility and inclusion, we are talking about different people’s needs, diverse needs, we are not talking about their health condition, we are just talking about user’s needs. Do we give a customer service, a public service, to every individual with equity? When we are looking into the modules and training, awareness on different user’s needs is critical.  Procurement is critical, we must make sure everyone is being included through a universal design approach in all tender documents. That’s a whole process there as well writing up the tender, user input from diverse abilities, having accessibility and universal design as part of the evaluation weighting, user testing before sign-off etc. For example, apart from accessible facilities, products and services, is there training on accessibility for evacuation and on-going maintenance in the hospitality sector?  In terms of digital communications, companies need to explore how to create accessible documents, websites, platforms, booking engines. Are our HR departments trained in inclusive recruitment? Simple little things like having your videos captioned, having a loop system inside your reception, having a vibrating pillow for a person that needs it for an evacuation ; these are all simple little things, but they are vital. So, it’s back again to giving that person-centered service. We have all different needs, we are all diverse in our abilities, yet we are trying to put a tourism experience into a box that’s a standard offering, and that has to change because there is no human born as standard just with different user needs and needs that will evolve through the human life cycle”.


Do you think accessibility training skills are necessary both for manager level and operational level?


“It is vital at both levels. It is vital in senior management level, because they have to become aware at the first place of the problem. Managers are leaders and create the inclusive culture, they are also the people that can apply any funding as required and instruct operational change, so if we don’t change or, more important, if managers can’t understand different user needs then you are losing the battle immediately. But equally it is vital at an operational level because, at the end of the day, they are the people that are meeting the users. The person that’s on the ground level, no matter what they are doing, they will see more, and hear more, and probably understand more of the challenges on a day to day basis than any person   at board room level. So that’s why it is vital that they receive training, so they understand accessible tourism and how to deliver inclusive service equally.  It is absolutely vital from a perspective of people with disability and impairment , getting that customer service equally and being able to participate independently”.

What are the strategies that could be created in destinations to achieve inclusion in tourism?


“I think at city level it is vital to develop training with policy makers, government tourism agencies at the highest level. This should be on accessible and inclusive strategy, brand engagement, industry engagement, accessible tool kits support, capacity building, awards, accreditation and more locally with developing product development, services, accessible booking services, accessible events, developing accessible destination guides and promoting  all in accessible formats in print and electronic. These are all underpinned by a universal design approach and process.  In respect of Kerry and Kerry County Council, we have trained all their staff on general accessible tourism awareness, we have done an audit of Killarney town, we have created an action plan and a roadmap for each department, looking through the universal design approach. Of course, this will be always evolving and ongoing, they have built into their tourism strategy right across each checkpoint. Some smart cities, as Malaga and Gothenburg, are very advanced. Being smart is about making sure every client, every customer, has the opportunity to visit and participate in the tourism experience equally and independently, and I always like to say that it’s not very smart if you leave out up to a quarter of the population and their families and friends. So that’s key. When we look at smart cities, we must look at everything, from a digital inclusion, because everything is getting moved so fast in technology, we must make sure that there are no barriers there, because of all different types of assistive technology and users operating preferences. Our transport systems are also vital to ensure all tourists can get around a city”.


What are the recommendations you could mention for developing sustainable initiatives for accessibility for tourism

“Accessibility and inclusion are going to become huge going forward because of the changing age demographics. Every one of us will get a disability as we get reduced function as we age, and that’s apart  from hopefully avoiding any acquired disability or long-term chronic illness. We must make sure that everyone with a disability has an equal opportunity to participate, that’s a vital human right.  I believe going forward changing the mindset, leadership and culture within any business or government services in the hospitality sector is vital. It is also vital because it sends out a message for all potential employees with disabilities that you are welcome and we want you if you have the talent and qualifications, if you are good enough we are happy to make sure that you will have every accommodation so you can perform to your best. Inclusiveness is a big part of an organization, there is no room for exclusion  any more. We are working towards the UN 2030 sustainable goals and disability cuts across all of those goals, so we can’t forget people’s different needs and people’s different abilities. I do believe government leaders, industry leaders and us as a society have the power and ability to make and  embed these changes now that we are beginning to understand different user needs. The important thing and the good thing are that everyone can make that decision to make a small change in their own business, starting with a leadership and cultural change at board or management level, in accessibility and inclusion of people with disabilities and ageing. And if they begin to understand this, they begin to do the small things right, we start to see the changes. Sustainability is a key part of universal design, accessibility and age inclusion:  leaving nobody out, leaving nobody behind, and that’s the key going forward. Everyone should have the right to have that human right, tourism services and to participate in the experience and society as equal as possible”.


This blog has highlighted best practice in accessible tourism, the importance of accessibility and inclusion skills training, strategies adopted in destinations and the key tourism employee skills required at both the managerial and operational level.  TU Dublin and the NTG Alliance thank Paudie Healy for his insights and examples of developing accessibility and inclusion for tourism destinations.

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