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Universal Design and Access in the Tourism and Travel Industry

by Terry L. Howard & Gregory W. Ulferts, University of Detroit Mercy



Every person is entitled to life’s pleasures regardless of their physical, mental, or psychological status. In particular, the focus is on the importance of universal design and access in the tourism and travel management sector. The universal access and design concept imply that the industry has to create convenient travel and accommodation facilities and services for persons with disabilities. This study seeks to describe and discuss how the industry can tap into the lucrative disability market for tourism and travel management businesses. In essence, the focus is on what the tourism sector facilitators can do to satisfy the needs of travelers with various disabilities while making substantial revenue from the operations.

Background Information

The world has a significant number of people with disabilities who lack the luxury of enjoying tourism facilities and services. According to the United Nations (UN) (n.d.), the global population of persons with disabilities is more than one billion. Also, disability directly affects over two billion people such as spouses, children, and caregivers. In the context of universal access and design, the UN report observes that the tourism industry fails to tap into this potentially massive market because of inaccessible facilities and services. Further, the tourism sector imposes discriminatory policies and practices against individuals with disabilities. However, the vice can be transformed into a virtue through the endorsement and implementation of accessible tourism. It is, therefore, crucial to identify the unique needs of different groups of people, followed by the elimination of all obstacles that could hinder such persons from participating in and enjoying tourism experiences.

Accessible tourism requires the collaboration of various stakeholders. Local and international agencies, tourism personnel, and end users need to work together towards achieving desirable results (Waligo, Clarke, & Hawkins, 2013). The different organizations need to provide accessibility information to travelers. People with disabilities, in particular, require special attention to be conversant with essential details such as local transportation, attraction sites, accommodation venues, and charges, as well as suitable and convenient shopping and dining centers. Such initiatives not only fulfill the needs of the travelers but also benefit the involved sectors. Primarily, the chain of operations from the tour guide to the service providers generates substantial income for the parties involved.

On a broader scale, the tourists’ destination yields revenue for the country in the various economic sectors ranging from hotels and restaurants to accommodation providers. Besides, the airlines and local transporters gain a taxable income that not only boosts the viability of the tourism sector but also increases the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) (2017), the travel and tourism sector rose above the global economy in 2016 recording a percentage of 10.2 ($7.6 trillion) of the world GDP. The data imply that the tourism industry could perform even better if it offered inclusive services designed to address the needs of persons with disabilities.

The Principles of Universal Access and Design

Seven principles guide the facilitators of tourism and travel management businesses. The first principle is equitable use, which caters for the needs of people with diverse conditions including people with disabilities (Pilarski & Rath, 2013). The second principle is flexibility in use. Primarily, the structural design of tourism and travel facilities ought to accommodate a broad range of clients’ preferences and abilities. The third principle is uncomplicated and intuitive, which implies that the design should be easy for users to understand regardless of their disabilities. In essence, the facilitators of the universal access and design should not discriminate against tourists based on user experience, knowledge, or language proficiency. The fourth principle is perceptible information. The relevant information that the design communicates should be clear irrespective of the travelers’ sensory abilities. For instance, people with eye impairment should be assisted in identifying travel details despite their eye-sight challenges.

The fifth principle is tolerance for error, which focuses on minimizing accidental actions arising from the design. For example, pathways and indoor corridors should not have obstacles that the disabled persons could stumble upon and probably fall. The sixth principle is a low physical effort. Users should access and use the design with minimum fatigue. For instance, an accommodation facility should have elevators to favor individuals who cannot use stairs. The seventh and last principle is size and space approach and use. A person’s size or body posture should not be a limiting factor while providing travelers and tourists with components such as seats and beds.

Little, yet significant, an effort can make a huge difference in the tourism and travel management sector. For instance, providing seats in the reception areas can go a long way in improving the traveler’s experience. More so, persons with disabilities such as less mobile individuals could feel relieved as standing for long is strenuous. The aspect of hospitality not only creates a positive impression for the traveler but also increases their chances of making a second visit (Mok, Sparks, & Kadampully, 2013). Therefore, the tourism industry needs to exploit hospitality skills towards satisfying the group of people with disabilities. Consequently, the revenue is bound to increase accordingly.

Besides placing seats in waiting areas, the tourism and travel management facilitators could introduce large and relatively visible registration forms, as well as menus. This kind of services would be useful to persons with eyesight problems such as the elderly and those who are short-sighted. The latter has problems seeing objects that are relatively far. Therefore, printing registration forms with large fonts reduce the challenges for such individuals. Similarly, hotel menus should be visible. Alternatively, waiters could volunteer to help the persons with visual problems in identifying the meals available as well as the prices. Research shows that a compassionate attitude towards clients in the tourism sector makes the customers feel the value of their money (Ozdemir et al., 2012). In the case of persons with disabilities, the compassionate attitude also makes the individuals feel cherished and worthy despite their physical conditions.

Another effort could be the construction and design of lower reception counters. People with disabilities may strain to reach high surfaces in booking offices. The tourism and traveling management industry, therefore, needs to implement such strategic initiatives. Alternatively, the sector’s administrators could designate an area where its operators can offer personalized services to people with disabilities. The objective is to maximize customer satisfaction while making a financial investment in the lucrative disability market.

Further, travel organizers can provide walking-stick holders at the reception areas or service counters. Older adults, especially, need to support themselves as they walk. Such a simple initiative would no doubt create a positive mark for the aged persons. Similarly, the tourism management could allocate some of its personnel to individuals in wheelchairs. Such persons require help maneuvering around. Without such support, it could be difficult to access different areas. For example, crossing a street or going to various floors in a building. Also, tourism destinations ought to create diverse facilities such as elevators alongside stairs. The former would suit people with disabilities as staircase-climbing is strenuous and impossible for some individuals. Travel management boards should liaise with construction contractors to ensure that tourism facilities and services cater to the needs of people with disabilities (Navarro, Garzón, & Roig-Tierno, 2015). The inclusive criterion not only eliminates bias but also diversifies the market share for the tourism industry.

Another action plan would be marking barrier-free paths of travel as well as step-free garden paths. People with eye impairment require maximum attention when it comes to indoor and outdoor walks. The tourism and travel facilitators need to collaborate with other parties such as accommodation providers to ensure that persons with disabilities are kept safe from any potential harm. For instance, furniture and electronics should be placed away from corridors. Besides people with eye impairment, persons in wheelchairs also require barrier-free paths as it can be challenging to move around. In the same line, the management ought to provide accessible garden furniture. Limiting persons with disabilities to indoor occupancy would be discriminative. The set of furniture should be at a reasonable height. Alternatively, personnel could help the persons with disability onto the furniture.

Besides marking barrier-free paths, the tourism and travel management board can execute other strategic moves. For instance, leaders could eliminate the restrictions in gaining access to tourism sites. Research shows that about 29 percent of people with disabilities have difficulty getting transportation and thus spend most of their time at home (Bureau of Transportation Statistics, n.d.).  The tourism sector facilitators could dedicate a team of drivers to offer the necessary assistance to such individuals. The existing data shows that a majority of this group comprises of older adults who are over 66 years of age. Such persons are mainly inactive thus posing health risks such as obesity and diabetes. Therefore, offering transportation services to such a group boosts the health of the individuals by engaging them in an active lifestyle of leisure and travel. On the other hand, the tourism industry makes money from the transport services.

Further, the target market is a useful resource for room services. Persons with disabilities lack the luxury of accessing particular services, unlike healthy people who can walk around to get what they want. For instance, an individual with a disability may have a hard time moving from the hotel room to nearby restaurants. Such a scenario presents a niche that the tourism and travel management personnel could seek to fill.  A recommendable action plan could involve the provision of a list of nearby restaurants and the contact information. Besides growing the customer base for the food industry, the avenue generates revenue for the tourism sector. Other services could include massage and spa. Persons with disabilities require therapeutic care to relax the muscles. The room services, therefore, mutually benefit the service providers as well as the clients. In Europe, only some hotels are accessible (Bowtell, 2015). The tourism industry needs to take advantage of this gap to offer room services at a fair price while saving the people with disabilities the trouble of moving up and down.

Another under-utilized customer attraction mechanism in the disability market is communication. In a particular U.K study, two-thirds of people admitted that they were not comfortable talking to people with disabilities (SAGA, 2016). In the context of tourism and travel management, workers in this sector ought to interact with persons with disabilities, ask the individuals about their travel preferences, as well as any other needs. Otherwise, discriminating against this group of people will push them away from the growing market. The SAGA report further notes that in Britain, older people travel more than youngsters accounting for around 58% of the travel and tourism revenue. Therefore, improving the communication skills of personnel in the diverse areas of the sector is bound to encourage more travelers with any disability. Besides, the individuals could refer family and friends to a particular destination by highlighting positive reviews of the travel management crew.

Further, the travel and tourism industry could hire translators across all its geographical regions. The reality is that a significant number of travelers are either hearing or voice impaired. As such, the availability of translators in tourist destinations could bridge the gap and maximize the visitors’ experience. Sign-language interpreters, especially, play an essential role in translating audio for those with hearing impairment and interpreting sign language for those people with voice impairment. Consequently, the persons with disabilities can fit in any environment that they tour. In the U.S, around 28.8 million adults are hearing impaired (Pionke, 2017). Such a relatively significant population should not feel left out in travel and tourism experiences. National and international disability organizations should liaise with tourism management facilitators to provide the necessary support to the group of persons. Evidently, there is much potential for growth of the tourism and travel industry from the disability market.

Also, the tourism and travel management businesses could also conduct research involving persons with disabilities. The platform offers the participants an opportunity to air their grievances and suggestions on service improvement. An Open Doors Organization (ODO) 2015 report revealed that persons with disabilities appreciate inclusion in the decision-making process regarding the services that travel and tourism bodies offer (Accessible Tourism, 2015). Customer service and efficient communication from service providers are some of the areas that respondents in the study felt needed improvement. The inclusion process not only fulfills the desires of the disabled travelers but also enables the tourism sector to improve their services.  The ODO report established that consistent studies had born good fruits as the number of people with disabilities has been gradually increasing. Consequently, the revenue from the disability market has been going up. In 2002, the figure was $13.6 billion. In 2015, the number increased by $3.7 billion to hit a high of $17.3 billion. Overall, the economy has significantly grown as most adults with disabilities travel alongside a family member thus doubling the revenue. The statistics imply that traveler surveys are essential towards reaping success from the disability market.

Hotels and other industry players also need to hire the services of trainers on accessibility and design. Scholars observe that the knowledge of accessibility and design is available yet the practical application of the information lacks in most of the tourism and travel management businesses (Cornell, 2014). Some of the training required includes setting up special features in accommodation facilities such as vibrating alarm clocks for persons with hearing difficulties. Hotels could also design braille fact sheets to guide the people with eye impairment on the available facilities and services. Also, there should be height-sensitive equipment such as door levers instead of knobs, wheelchair-level closet rods, and shower heads at chair height. Such training is not only relevant to the accommodation facility’s staff, but also with the management. The more accessible an institution is, the higher the influx of persons with disabilities, as well as income generation. Besides, the tourists get a convenient destination thus increasing their likelihood of referring their friends and relatives. It is, therefore, recommendable for operators in the tourism and travel industry to embark on a comprehensive training of all staff about accessibility and design.

Marketers ought to incorporate strategies that cater for the needs of persons with disabilities. Scholars propose that companies in the travel and tourism industries need to test their marketing approach with persons with disabilities (Eichhorn, Miller, & Tribe, 2013). Moreover, the marketing teams need to keep an open mind about the capabilities of persons with disabilities. Advances in technology and changes in social attitudes have significantly contributed to the increased possibilities for people with disabilities.  For example, the availability of assistive devices such as wheelchairs, prostheses, memory aids, and pill organizers. Therefore, the tourism and travel management businesses ought to exploit the numerous possibilities to reach out to the disability market. The inclusion of such individuals satisfies both parties: the persons with disabilities and the tourism industry. Therefore, a careful consideration of the marketing strategies significantly contributes to the growth of the tourism and travel management businesses.

Another proposed marketing strategy is incorporating the persons with disabilities in the product development stage. Scholars argue that meeting the needs of this target group requires a personal interaction with the individuals (Buhalis, Darcy, & Ambrose, 2012). The platform gives the persons with disabilities an opportunity to describe their preferred facilities and services. The tourism and travel management businesses can exploit this avenue to achieve universal access and design. For example, travel tour agencies could include a sample of individuals with disabilities in the development stage of a new facility in the transportation sector. In essence, the firm would be seeking to satisfy the needs of the growing population of persons living with disabilities. Besides, the more satisfied the customer is, the higher the likelihood of subscribing to the service. Such a marketing strategy places the operator at an edge over their competitors. Primarily, the target customer values the service provider who goes an extra mile to consult people with disabilities before launching a product.

Besides incorporating the people with disabilities in the product development stage, firms could also appeal to the target market through shows and exhibitions at annual consumer disability conferences. The tourism and travel industry players could highlight their useful products and services that cater to the needs of persons with disabilities. For example, mobile device application developers could present and demonstrate their applications that are customized for use and guidance of people with disabilities. Some of the premium apps include NotNav and NowNav GPS accessibility. The application suits people with eye impairment as it continually updates the user on the current geographical details such as street address, nearby crosswalks, and roads via audio announcement (Hindy, 2017). Other industries such as tour guide companies could showcase their vehicle designs with special compartments for people with disability. In summary, shows and exhibitions expose the strengths of the businesses in the tourism and travel industry thus widening the scope of operations between the service providers and the disability market.


The travel and tourism management businesses have unlimited opportunities to tap into the lucrative disability market. The secret is realizing and implementing strategies that achieve the principles of universal design and access. In essence, the products and services that the booming sector offers should be suitable and accessible to all people, including the persons with disabilities. Some of the successful strategies towards appealing to the disability market include providing seats in travel agencies’ reception areas, providing visible registration forms, issuing walking-stick holders to old people at the service counters, and eliminating restrictions on people with disabilities in tourism sites. The industry players also ought to hire training services on accessibility and design. It is also essential to implement appropriate marketing strategies such as incorporating the people with disabilities in the product development stage and participating in shows and exhibitions at annual consumer disability conferences. In a nutshell, satisfying the needs of the people with disabilities boosts the tourism and travel businesses economically.