Tourism: "Questions about accessibility and participation are omnipresent"
Tourism: "Questions about accessibility and participation are omnipresent"
Whether travel providers, accessible mobile homes or special aids for travelling – travel and tourism are a popular topic in the Düsseldorf exhibition halls every year. At this year's REHACARE, exhibitors will be adding a versatile event to their range at TREFFPUNKT REHACARE: news from accessible tourism.
At REHACARE Julia Marmulla will also have some copies of her travel magazine with her.
In this interview with REHACARE.com, tourism consultant Julia Marmulla gives insight into her work and describes her observations of the industry.
Ms. Marmulla, what experience have you had so far in the field of "accessible travel"?
Julia Marmulla: During my studies of political science, I already devoted myself to the topics of inclusion, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the ratification of which was highly topical at the time, and accessibility in developing countries. In my professional career in tourism, I have completed many different stages and have repeatedly had contact with the topic of accessible travel.
My experience is that almost everyone who works in tourism is confronted with questions about accessibility and participation.
Before I started my own business, I had the office of the association "Tourismus für Alle Deutschland e.V." (English: "Tourism for all Germany") (NatKo). The association was supported by various associations for the disabled, but in the meantime it has dissolved. NatKo pursued the goal – in dialogue with the tourism industry and policy – of strengthening accessibility in general tourism. One of the main focuses was the certification system "Travel for All", in the development of which NatKo played a major role.
Since I have been self-employed, I have been advising tourism professionals (destinations, hotels, museums, tour operators) and publish a travel magazine called ".Meine Reisewelt – einzigartig – komfortabel – barrierefrei" (English: .My travel world – unique – comfortable ≈ accessible)
What goals do you pursue with your professional advice and the travel magazine?
Marmulla: In consulting, the objectives depend on the tasks of the client (e.g. hotels or destination management organizations). The tasks are very different. Among other things, the aim is to identify the potential of destinations in the area of accessible tourism and to formulate recommendations on how this potential can be exploited. This results in more local accessibility – which benefits both travellers and tourism companies.
With the travel magazine I am pursuing the very clear goal of offering wheelchair users, visually impaired and blind people in particular a combination of travel inspiration and useful information on local accessibility. Most articles provide information on two aspects: On the one hand – similar to every other travel magazine – the destination is portrayed and on the other hand the status of accessibility is described and further information is linked. For some people, who live perhaps only recently with a disability, the magazine is to serve also as an inspiration, by showing, what and how – in the perhaps still unusual situation in life – can be experienced.
Julia Marmulla (3rd from left) was on a blogger trip to Erfurt and Weimar together with German activist Laura Gehlhaar.
To what extent do you also work directly with people with disabilities for both offers?
Marmulla: The exchange with people with disabilities, activists and representatives is very important to me. For the March and September issues (2019) of the travel magazine, three authors who use a wheelchair wrote about their travel experiences and recommendations in and for Graz, Amsterdam, Bali and Ghana. Another example are the interviews I did with the founder of roomchooser and the New York City Disability Officer – both wheelchair users. By the way, in the medium term I would like to attract even more people with disabilities as authors.
In the September issue of the magazine will also be a long article about Erfurt and Weimar. There I did some research with the blogger and activist Laura Gehlhaar. Of course that was great, because I can be sure: If a destination "works" for Laura, it will also work for many other wheelchair users (not for everyone, I know). Erfurt and Weimar are wonderful cities and the Bauhaus anniversary was a current travel occasion. In the magazine I describe what we experienced. In addition, two pages of information help you plan your own trip.
Every exchange, every experience is also reflected in the consultations. In my work I attach great importance to considering the following requirements equally: Requirements from the DIN standards for accessible building and requirements expressed directly by people with disabilities. In my opinion, this is the optimal mix of consulting services.
What developments have you been able to observe in recent years with regard to "accessible tourism"?
Marmulla: This is a very difficult question to which one would have to give a page-long answer – the world is not only black or white. However, I will only be able to name a few selected aspects.
In my opinion, in recent years tourism in general has done almost nothing for people with cognitive impairments and for deaf and hearing-impaired people. There are many and very different reasons for this.
For visually impaired and blind people, something is happening especially in the museum and cultural sector, although here too we are still a long way from a comprehensive accessibility – in which blind and visually impaired people can really cope on their own and without outside help, as is demanded by many associations. I think we need a broader discourse on where and how accessibility should be created for (and with) blind and visually impaired people. The aim should be to improve people's situation, perhaps through more (digital) assistance services. For example, associations often demand tactile guidance systems inside facilities. However, these places – for example a museum or hotel – are visited only once in a lifetime or perhaps at most once a year. Does that really make sense? I have my doubts. Having said that, tactile stations, which many people enjoy and which also and especially work for blind and visually impaired people, (always) make great sense. I am convinced that we must lead a more honest discourse that is more oriented to the realities of people's lives and in some places less to the maximum demands of individuals.
In recent years, destination management organisations – i.e. institutions that create and bundle synergies in the destination and are often local thought leaders – have generally become more professional. This also includes the discussion of the topic of accessibility. This often takes place within the framework of funded projects. As is the case with many other topics, employees who deal with the topic of accessibility are not employed in staff positions, but within the framework of funded projects. In my opinion, this project funding has produced satisfactory results (grade 3) in recent years. But that could be better!
If we look at the level of tourism service providers, the larger new hotels now have to build at least one or two wheelchair-accessible and comprehensively accessible rooms. I don't think I've ever been in a room where I didn't immediately think this or that could have been done better without a lot of extra money. But at least good wheelchair-accessible rooms are created. But this is where the next problem arises: There is insufficient communication that such rooms exist. As a result, people with reduced mobility continue to look for rooms and many hotels have poor occupancy rates in accessible rooms. Paradoxical, isn't it?
With many existing hotels, the situation is structurally quite desolate and the real interest in accessibility is only present at certain points. But – and this is the other positive side of the coin – you always come across very committed hoteliers and tour operators. I would also like to make that quite clear!
One of the most systematic improvements in accommodation in recent years is found in youth hostels. If you take a look at the new youth hostels in Bayreuth and Schweinfurt, for example – and according to hearsay also at the Ostbahnhof in Berlin – it has to be stated: Much has been done right here! By the way, I portrayed Bayreuth Youth Hostel in the September issue of the travel magazine.
Since you have asked about the changes in recent years, "Travel for All" should not go unmentioned. We have been working on this system for about ten years. And slowly the system is well known among tourism companies, and yet only a few can be certified. The system is not yet particularly present among potential travellers.
Whether within Germany or worldwide – accessible traveling is a relevant topic for many people with disabilities.
What trends do you see in "accessible travel/tourism" for the coming years?
Marmulla: Overall, I am optimistic that the situation for wheelchair users and seniors will gradually improve. And also for blind and visually impaired people I see at least some purely constructional improvements. I don't want to open the barrel of digital accessibility at this point – that would be too far-reaching.
Since there is no institutional funding for accessible tourism in sight, I think it is important that future project subsidies be made available for the topic.
With the "Travel for All" certification system, I myself am curious to see what happens next. With political will, the system could be expanded very well in a very short time of no more than three years. Then the last ten years would be regarded as a pilot phase. But if things continue as they are, the system will continue to bumble around. Which is better than nothing, but not enough.
With regard to what I can directly influence, I would like to say that my goal is to reach as many readers as possible with the travel magazine and to provide a qualified and exciting insight into travel opportunities twice a year.