Virtual tours and accessible tourism

Virtual tours using 3D photography is being used more frequently by tour companies to sell their experiences. For example, most cruise ships have virtual tours of their staterooms (cabins) so you can see what it looks like before you book. But virtual tours are a necessity for people who need to know exactly what a place looks like before they set out.

Visiting an unfamiliar location is a challenge when you have a disability. Will I be able to get in? Will there be loud noises? Is there be someone to help me? An interactive virtual tour can answer these questions.

Image of Hamaren Activity Park, Norway.

A man sits in a bike taxi which is being driven down a section of the boardwalk.

Google Maps got onto the digital image idea quickly and now Street View is accepted as normal. However, once you leave the street to enter a place or space the vision ends. The rest of the journey becomes a visual magical mystery tour. For some people, photographic information is essential to give them confidence to make the journey in the first place.

When it comes to accessible tourism this type of imagery is a really good way to showcase good access features. It gives people with different disabilities the confidence to easily choose visitor experiences and accommodation. It also tells prospective visitors whether the claim of accessibility matches their individual requirements.

People who use mobility devices can see important details such as steps, ramps, lifts and a level path of travel. People who are neurodiverse and experience sensory overload in large, noisy places can either decide not to go, or to be prepared for this in advance. Knowing what to expect helps keep anxiety levels down.

Virtual tours are universal design

Regardless of whether a person has a disability, it is a comfort to know what to expect and avoid nasty surprises. That makes virtual tours and 3D images a universal design concept – good for everyone.

UK company Ocean 3D has a fact sheet with more detail on their website. There are also good examples of what these tours look like. Virtual tours for access purposes are not the same as promotional videos that give a general idea of a place.

A second fact sheet explains the benefits of 3D images for people who are neurodiverse.

Accessible Gold Coast Guide

Creating a visitor guide highlighting accessible accommodation, attractions and events is a challenging task. The accessible Gold Coast guide has all the essential elements for visitors looking for accessible places and experiences. It’s a good example of what an access guide should contain.

The guide is comprehensive and covers just about everything anyone would want to do as a visitor. However, this does make for a large document of 158 pages. Queensland made 2023 the “Year of Accessible Tourism” and this guide is a great legacy.

Front cover of the Accessible Gold Coast Visitor guide showing two images: one of the buildings at twilight, and one of a swimming pool.

The guide has an accommodation map covering northern and central Gold Coast, and the southern Gold Coast and hinterland. Each hotel and resort listed provides detailed information about accessible rooms. The information covers reception, the room, the bathroom, bedding, kitchen, balcony, furniture and fittings, and public areas including the pool.

There is also a map listing the key attractions for the Gold Coast. Each of the attractions listed has an overview and an accompanying “access statement” provided by the operator. These statements promote their service as well as provide an overview of what is inclusive or accessible. It’s not clear which experiences are specifically for people with disability or for everyone – inclusive. Also, the way the information is presented varies from operator to operator.

Information about transport modes and their accessibility is also provided.

What it doesn’t cover

It’s clear from the access statements that the focus is on mobility disabilities and wheelchair users. Invisible disabilities are missing from the statements. Some of the language needs vetting for outdated terms such as “special needs”. Choice of font and layout for the statements would also benefit from a review.

The font for the main document uses a narrow typeface which isn’t the easiest to read. It’s one thing to have an access statement, but the statement itself needs to be accessible. More plain language would also make the document more accessible to more people.

This is the first iteration of the guide, and as such it shows how to go about at providing detailed access information for visitors. Making the guide itself more accessible would be a useful improvement.

Destination Gold Coast is a separate website and provides similar information with a link to the accessible Gold Coast guide. This website looks like it was designed by the same graphic designer with the same narrow typeface, and headings in both upper case and script style text. The Handbook for Accessible Graphic Design addresses these issues.

Walking – tourists and locals compared

A group of researchers compared the walking experience of tourists and locals in two New Zealand cities. The research was in the context of accessibility and active travel. They chose to compare Christchurch and Wellington because of their differing topography and architecture. There are no surprising results from the study, but they confirm the need for good footpaths and wayfinding for everyone.

Overall, both tourists and locals were generally “satisfied” with their walking experience in both cities. However, the age of participants was skewed to younger age groups.

Image of Christchurch Post Office.

Christchurch post office a tourist destination.

Participants were asked to rate the presence of a good and wide walkway condition, absence of closed roads (culs de sac), signage, flat terrain, and accessibility for wheelchairs and prams. Overall, both locals and tourists appreciated well designed level walkways with good signage for wayfinding. However, walkers would like to be alerted to construction works so they can take alternative routes in the same way as motorists.

In Wellington, tourists indicated that they expected more accessible routes so that people with differing abilities could walk or wheel. This was the most significant finding in the survey because it was the only score to fall below the statistical neutral line.

Image of Wellington.

View of Wellington harbourside showing the hilly terrain in the  background and yachts moored in the foreground.

Christchurch has less steep terrain which means it could satisfy the accessibility criteria better than Wellington. Tourists liked the grid pattern of the city which removed the culs de sac that existed before the earthquake. However, poor or narrow footpaths were a concern for both tourists and locals in the central area. Lack of signage at intersections was not regarded well by tourists either.

In Wellington footpaths and signage were also a major concern for locals and tourists alike. While the footpaths were wide, they were poorly maintained.

More signage for tourists

It’s not only signs that people need – landmarks work as well. Wellington has a good natural landmark in the form of the harbour. The Avon River in Christchurch also helps with navigation. However, tourists would like more signage, especially at intersections.

The title of the paper is, The walking tourist: How do the perceptions of tourists and locals compare?

From the abstract

This research addresses the question of how visitors perceive and evaluate the city they are visiting when they walk. Comparisons are made with the experience of local residents. The paper examines the relatively overlooked domain of tourist walkability and investigates the extent to which accessibility and topography may influence walking experiences.

Data were gathered from a Walk Diary in which respondents evaluated the environment along a single walk. Responses were received through convenience sampling from 132 people in Christchurch and Wellington. The Walk Diary provided an effective way of capturing differences between locals and tourists when they walk. Insights from this study will be particularly useful to those tasked with enhancing people’s urban walking experience.

Connecting with nature and heritage

We know that connecting with nature is essential for our mental and physical health. The recent pandemic made that clear. Creating accessible parks and wilderness areas is more than just considering how a wheelchair user might navigate the terrain. Different people have different ways of connecting with nature that is meaningful for them.

A report for the National Trust in the UK brings together practical information about accessibility for different groups of people. The report is based on a new site acquired by the National Trust in Lincolnshire. Image is of Sandilands Beach (National Trust)

The sun is setting over the ocean at Sandilands beach where people are connecting with nature.

Age, cultural background, socioeconomic status and disability are all considered in the report’s practical considerations. The focus is on the accessibility of external spaces because the overall focus is on access to nature.

The report covers detail on the usual elements such as:

  • Easy to navigate website with relevant access information
  • Lighting around key facilities
  • Toilets that can accommodate mobility scooters and wheelchairs, and relief areas for dogs
  • Signage and maps of walks and paths
A small white dog being walked on a path at Sandilands.

Parking, transport and toilets have more detail along with paths and routes.

Paths and routes

Footway treatments are especially important as well as providing multiple paths so that visitors can choose the most suitable one. In the UK the Fieldfare Trust has a guide for different types and specifications for footpaths in different locations. They cover everything from peri-urban to wilderness. Disabled Ramblers have three categories of paths that they use to describe routes and paths.

The report goes into more detail about path surfaces, widths, gradients and accessible gates. Benches, shelters, bridges, boardwalks and viewing platforms are covered as well.

Connecting with nature

This section of the report covers the diverse range of visitors and how they best connect with nature. The section of age, covers the different needs of children, adolescents and older adults. Little is known why certain ethnic minority groups are less likely to use green spaces. However, they are more likely to use them in groups rather than alone. People with lower incomes visit green spaces less often and more needs to be done to change this.

Lack of access to transport to green space is a key barrier for people with disability. Physical barriers are also a problem but the way that service people treat them is another downside to visiting nature.

The report ends with a list of recommendations covering all the issues discussed earlier in the document. The title of the report is, Nature Connectivity and Accessibility. A report for the National Trust.

Children like it green

A group of children are walking along a path in a nature park.

A Danish study used satellite data to show a link between growing up near green space and issues with mental health in adulthood. They found that children under 10 years who had greater access to green space may grow up to be happier adults. The FastCo article goes on to say that data was correlated between the child’s proximity to green space during childhood and that same person’s mental health later in life. The more green space they had access to, the less likely they were to have mental health issues later.

The FastCo article is titled, “Kids surrounded by greenery may grow up to be happier adults“. Researchers at Aahus University carried out the research. Their paper is titled, Being surrounded by green space in childhood may improve mental health of adults

Inclusive tourism with universal design

Research on the business opportunities in accessible and inclusive tourism is extensive. However, the intent of this research is largely staying on the shelf. A mix of attitudes towards people with disability and a sense of “not knowing where to start” are likely reasons. But you can get inclusive tourism with universal design by co-designing with tourism operators.

” Surprisingly, many cases did not meet the minimal requirements for “older people” and “people in a wheelchair.” … but this result did function as an eye-opener”.

A hotel receptionist is talking to a man and woman across a reception counter. Inclusive tourism.

A research group in Belgium has devised a method to uncover business opportunities through universal design. Collaborating with 17 accommodation providers they came up with a seven step process to integrate universal design into their business model. The process is also a way to increase knowledge and understanding of diverse guests and their experiences.

The research group documented their project in a conference paper. It begins by explaining inclusive tourism as a right, a business opportunity and a challenge. They devised a method to use the potential of universal design as a “business transformer”.

Co-designing the 7 steps

  • Step 1: We created a literature-based universal design screening based on mindset, management and infrastructure.
  • Step 2: We tested and updated the screening in each of the 17 accommodation providers.
  • Step 3: We analysed the data for each business which was given to them in a report.
  • Step 4: The results were further processed with the participant, who decided on priorities.
  • Step 5: An action plan was devised based on step 4.
  • Step 6: A concise checklist and a guide with relevant information (tools).
  • Step 7: A re-evaluation of the business to assess the actual improvement after interventions. Unfortunately the COVID pandemic impacted this research and the last step was not possible with the downturn in tourism.
Hotel bedroom with polished floors, orange and red pillows on a couch and textured wallpaper

The title of the paper is Inclusive Tourism: Co-developing a Methodology to Uncover Business Opportunities through Universal Design. Scroll past the first paper in the conference proceedings to get to this one.

From the abstract

We describe a 2-year project where the possibilities of universal design were explored. The purpose was to structurally uncover and address potential business opportunities.

The method was based on: inclusive customer journey, linking mindset, management and infrastructure, and diverse user needs. We collaborated with seventeen accommodation providers and developed a seven-step process. The process integrates universal design into their business model.

The Disabled Tourist: a book

Here is the overview from the publisher of The Disabled Tourist: Navigating an Ableist Tourism World. It’s an academic text by Brielle Gillovic, Alison McIntosh and Simon Darcy.

This book addresses a growing demand to hear the authentic voices and understand the lived tourist experiences of people with disability. The latest volume in The Tourist Experience series challenges what is arguably an exclusionary, marginalising, discriminatory, and ableist (tourism) world.

Front cover of The Disabled Tourist.

By drawing attention to the ‘dis/’ in ‘disabled’, the authors provoke the need to change binary thinking about people who live with disability so that they may be ‘able’ to assume the role of tourist.

They engage critical tourism and critical disability studies, and their respective theories, perspectives, and debates, around, for instance, models of disability that shape conceptualisations and worldviews, inclusive research and enabling language, and the ethics of care.

These are pivotal to dismantling normative structures to enable a more inclusive, equitable, and socially just tourist experience that promotes a more independent and dignified tourism world for people with disability.

Tourism and Disability: Book review

A woman in a yellow jacket is being assisted onto the tour bus by two men up a ramp.

Tourism and Disability is a new book addressing the existing  challenges and opportunities related to tourism for people with disability. The Booktopia review describes this as an underdeveloped and underestimated niche market. While there is a larger market for family group travel, there is also a market for disability-specific tourism products. 

The book examines the strategies, policies, and initiatives at regional, national, and international levels. The aim is to foster the development of accessible tourism.  It examines the different social, cultural, legal, and information/interactive barriers to inclusion. The book’s focus is on the distinctive travel demands of people with disability and how their needs differ from the preferences of travellers without disability. 

The various chapters provide a multidisciplinary approach to the topic covering management, economics, and statistical analysis. This makes it useful for academics and practitioners alike. 

The Title of the book is Tourism and Disability: An economic and managerial perspective. Published by SpringerLink you can purchase individual chapters online. The book is also available from other suppliers. The editors and most contributors are based in Europe where tourism is a key part of the European economy. 

Front cover of Tourism and Disability.

Accessible places with Google Maps

Google Maps has two new features to help us find our way and what we are looking for. Live View uses the camera in your phone to give street view directions, and the “Accessible Places” feature marks entrances with wheelchair access.

Accessible Places feature

Google Maps has expanded its “Accessible Places” feature that shows when a place is wheelchair accessible and/or stair-free. It will be interesting to see if this will encourage more places to make their businesses accessible. As we know, when it’s good for a wheelchair, it’s good for prams, bikes and trolleys.

The feature was originally launched in 2020, but it was limited to just Australia, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S. Now, the feature is available worldwide on Android and iOS.

Google Maps pin icon against a background of different coloured dots.

To use this feature, turn on the “Accessible Places” setting in the Google Maps app. You will see a wheelchair icon on the business profile if it has a wheelchair accessible entrance. You will see the same icon with a strikethrough if the location is not accessible. The feature can also check to see if the location offers accessible parking, facilities, and seating.

Steepness of slopes doesn’t appear to be covered, and Google doesn’t say if their access maps are accessible.

It’s up to business owners to update their business profile to reflect whether their business is accessible. It’s unlikely Google will check whether this is true, but user feedback should keep businesses on their toes.

Live View feature

When walking around in new surroundings, Live View helps you keep your bearings. Using the phone camera, the flat map view is transformed into the street view with arrows so you know which way to head. A great plus for tourists and visitors.

When walking around in new surroundings, Live View helps you keep your bearings. Using the phone camera, the flat map view is transformed into the street view with arrows so you know which way to head. A great plus for tourists and visitors.

With Live View, users can walk the streets using the camera on their phone and get directions on the screen. The updated version has more information such as cafes, ATMs and transit stations.

A Gif of Live View in action showing a street view on Google Maps.

Different app developers have tried their hand at creating access maps, but Google brings many features together on the one screen. However, access for wheelchair users does not guarantee access for everyone, and it doesn’t cover all disabilities. It also doesn’t say how welcome people with disability will feel. Nevertheless, it is a good start and Google will continue to improve. The next thing is finding places where you can hear each other talk.

Accessible tourism: the call of the wild

Wide open vistas, mountain wilderness and crystal clear lakes attract visitors from near and afar. But the very nature of these landscapes means they aren’t easily accessible to everyone. Similarly to beach locations, this is a situation where assistive technology meets universal design. However, providing a specialised track wheelchair or beach wheelchair, for example, cannot do the job alone. It still needs an accessible travel chain.

A man in his wheelchair with the Freedom Trax attached. He is on a walking trail.

Tourist destinations in the natural environment can be inclusive if there is joined up thinking. That is, joining up service delivery and staff training with the physical environment and, at times, the addition of some assistive technologies.

Having an all-terrain wheelchair device is only one part of the tourism experience. A paper reporting on a case study of specialised mobility devices shows the importance of user testing. Getting in and out of the device, operating it, and being part of a group, all need testing for convenience and useability before they become part of the service. The authors used the principles of universal design in their study and sum up with the following:

  • The entire customer journey must be inclusive: toilets, parking, cafes, cable car, etc.
  • Transfers must be supervised by trained staff
  • Trails must be tested, marked and secured
  • Emergency procedures set up in case of an accident
  • Training courses for tourism service staff in the use of assistive technology
  • The devices are expensive and hiring might be a better option

The title of the article is, Improving the Accessibility of Touristic Destinations with an Assistive Technology For Hiking – Applying Universal Design Principles Through Service Design. The article mentions the Freedom Trax device and the video below shows the device in action. Courtesy their Facebook page. Freedom Trax is just one of similar products available.

From the abstract

Accessible Tourism focuses on the logistical attributes being accessible to all and on the process to develop accessible products and services with stakeholders. Assistive technologies have the potential to improve the accessibility destinations such as those designed for hiking.

However, their integration on the customer journey has to be designed as a service. To this end, universal design principles and guidelines should be used in the design process.

The potential and the conceptualization of applying universal design principles for tourism has been widely discussed. However, little has been done to operationalize this idea.

In this article, we demonstrate how to co-create with users an accessible tourism service using assistive technology who enables hiking for people using wheelchairs. Our main findings illustrate the pros and the cons of using and assistive technologies and the importance of considering the whole customer journey to improve the accessibility of touristic destinations.

See a related post, Taming the wilderness with inclusive design.

Guides to historic buildings and places

Front cover of the guide to historic buildings. Buildings from previous centuries didn’t consider access and inclusion, so the two don’t go together well. Historic England has taken on the challenge with their updated guide, Easy Access to Historic Buildings. The guide also includes information for businesses and attractions within an historic site, such as shops and cafes. These places aren’t necessarily historic, but add to the overall visitor experience. The guide can be downloaded in sections.

Front cover of the guide with four pictures of people in different historic locationsHistoric landscapes, gardens and open spaces are there for everyone to enjoy. Historic England has produced a guide for anyone working to open up historic sites to a wider audience. This edition promotes an inclusive approach to ensure that every visitor to an historic park, garden or landscape has a meaningful experience – not just physical access.

Property owners and managers designers, and planners should find the guide helpful in tackling all aspects of the visitor experience. The key elements of the Easy Access to Historic Landscapes guide are:

      1. Why access matters
      2. Planning better access
      3. Making access a reality
      4. Published sources of information
      5. Where to get advice  

Access to hotels for people with hearing loss

One of the first things hotels can do is ensure room TVs have subtitles/captioning and a remote that activates it. Many streaming services that hotels offer have captioning and a TV without access to this function is very frustrating. 

The Inclusive Hotels Network in the UK has a guide for hotels for people with hearing loss. It covers the built environment, technology and management of services. The customer profile section is also useful with some facts and figures about travellers and visitors. Degree of hearing loss varies greatly from difficulty with speech discrimination through to total deafness. So there is no one-size-fits-all solution. 

There are more resources in the Travel and Tourism section of this website. 

Future of tourism should be accessible

While the tourism industry thinks “accessible tourism” is for a separate type of customer, the concept of equity and inclusion will remain elusive. Assumptions and biases show up in our language, and those who are on the wrong end of these biases are the ones to call it out. Ryan Smith called out this bias when he saw a Tourism Australia infographic depicting the future of tourism and made his own infographic. 

The Tourism Australia infographic depicts six strands, adventure, wellness, youth, agritourism, accessible, and events. The bias is in the assumption that the five other strands aren’t going to be accessible. However, the graphic shows sustainability and Indigenous culture across all six of the strands.

Tourism Australia's infographic showing accessible tourism as a separate entity.
Tourism Australia’s view of the Future of Tourism

Ryan Smith reproduced the infographic to bring the concepts into the 21st Century. The five strands are depicted as resting on three key elements: Accessible, Indigenous, Sustainable. He also replaced the photographs with icons for an easier read.

Ryan Smith's version showing Accessible as part of all other types of tourism.
Ryan Smith’s version showing Accessible as part of all other types of tourism.

This is a good example of exposing biases. It also shows why we should involve all stakeholders in publicity and promotion. That’s what makes co-design a good thing for everyone and for business. 

Tourism Accessibility Guides: Good examples

A heritage building in Scotland at night with nice lighting from the windows. Accessibility guides like this encourage more visitors.
One of the attractions from the Visit England website

According to the Visit England website, 63% of tourism businesses do not promote their access provisions for visitors. Yet 95% of visitors with access requirements look for this information before deciding to visit. The website also has advice and help for creating and publishing accessibility guides. It includes sections on photography, and how to create a location map and video guide. 

The Visit England website also has a link to a video and three good examples of tourism accessibility guides:

Self-catering example

The self-catering example has an easy to read webpage setting out where there is level access, and access to bedrooms. Under the hearing tab it explains the TVs have subtitles and a hearing loop. 

Under the vision tab it explains colour contrast, large print and Easy Read formats. They have non-allergenic bedding and a portable hoist. 

There is a three-minute video explaining the importance of this information and how businesses benefit. 

Restaurant example

The restaurant example explains they are a family run business and similarly to the self-catering example they cover level access, hearing and vision. They cater for a variety of diets and assistance dogs are welcome. 

Visitor attraction example

The example is based on a whisky distillery with a guided tour, a shop, restaurant and tasting experience. Visitors can check out level access, and provisions for hearing and vision.

The example guides are a good start, but would be enhanced by more photographs of the rooms and spaces. See previous post on The Kelpies for another good example of a guide for ALL visitors. This one is in the form of an access statement and includes several photographs to aid visitors.

Is your pub accessible?

Picture from front cover of the booklet showing two pubs and a man who is blind using his smartphone to order food. Is your beer accessible?The British Beer & Pub Association has a straightforward booklet of advice and good case studies for accessibility. It dispels a lot of myths, and many of the adaptations are simple, such as easy to read menus. It covers physical, sensory and cognitive issues that potential customers might have. So joke-type symbols for toilets are not a good idea, as well as understanding that not all disabilities are visible. Excellent resource for any food and beverage venue. As is often the case, it is not rocket science or costly, just thoughtful.

The title of the publication is An Open Welcome: Making your pub accessible for customers. “Pubs are places where everyone is welcome. It’s where family, friends and colleagues come together and where tourists to the country feel they will see the true, welcoming Britain”. 


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