Careful Travel: Will Accessible Tourism Set the Post COVID-19 Standard?

accessible

I traveled by airplane for the first time in months. Here is a photo of me in near-hazmat gear to ensure that I was as safe as possible.

Even through my paraphernalia I could observe other passengers from the security line to the moment we deplaned. I noticed that certain passengers were models of safety decorum…and also that they were smiling, gracious and seemed less harassed than others—including me.

These passengers are a special breed. They were disabled—one was blind…three were in wheelchairs…and one had a rescue dog. It got me thinking. Why were they such good sports?

Undoubtedly, the threat of contracting COVID-19 during travel requires new protocols for both travelers and travel providers. This opens an opportunity for accessible travelers to be leaders in the post-pandemic “New Normal.”

Let me explain.

According to a report from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) released in March (the statistics may be worse today)…

“An expected fall of between 20% and 30% could translate into a decline in international tourism receipts (exports) of between US$300 to $450 billion, almost one-third of the US$1.5 trillion generated in 2019. Considering past market trends, this would mean that between five  and seven years’ worth of growth will be lost to COVID-19.”

Now what?

The travel industry is in desperate need of two things right now—first, that governments allow travel again…and second, that people are willing to travel.

For the first, the travel industry will have to roll with the punches of government regulation. Fortunately, openings are coming, although slowly.

Still, people are wary of travel safety, and millions are holding off on that vacation…seeing their families…and even staying overnight in a hotel. The issue of safety cuts across the silos of accessible travel…mature travel…and all other types of travel.

Here is where accessible travel can take a leadership role.

At its core, accessible travel is careful travel in two senses of the word. First, the travel providers must make sure that no one, regardless of ability, gets hurt and that everyone is happy with their experience. Often the approach of friendly accessible travel staff is both in caregiver mode and hospitality mode. A significant conscious effort is made to be sure that all travelers are safe. Sound familiar?

Second, in the sense that accessible travelers themselves are accustomed to taking extra precautions and depending on what they envision they may need to stay safe. The accessible traveler may require a caregiver or companion, lots of equipment and different types of supplies. In short, the inconvenience of travel is second nature to the accessible traveler…a mask, hand sanitizer and distancing is not much of a stretch or an extra annoyance for them.

And speaking of masks…

Traveler behavior will be a critical component of safe travel. We all are responsible for each other. Here is where accessible travelers can be a shining model of behavior and outstanding travel citizens that set the standards for us all.

This will not be easy.

No one wants to be a vigilante or get into a stranger’s business. But what do we do when we see folks failing to wear masks in close quarters or congregating against pool rules at the hot tub? Will we stick up for ourselves and ask them to stop and heighten their awareness in a new-normal standard of intervention for safety?

Accessible travelers have had to forge better conditions in which to travel over the last many years. Sometimes this required them to put pressure on airlines and big industry. Can all travelers learn from the behavior of the accessible traveler? I believe so.

Here’s how: We all can…

  • Speak up when we see a problem.
  • Use social media to describe issues of irresponsible behavior.
  • Use only travel companies that adhere to the strictest rules and go beyond what is required to make sure we all are safe.
  • Tell our individual stories about what went right and what went wrong in our travels.

The watchwords of post-COVID travel are “safe” and “aware”—things about which the accessible traveler knows.

Post-COVID-19, neither the travelindustry nor the traveler can take anything for granted—from the cleanliness of the airplane tray to the proximity of your bar stools in a restaurant. We all have to have a heightened sense of safety and care. Travel staff cannot become unfocused for a minute on the safety protocols, and yet they must balance that precautionary attitude with gracious hospitality and fun.

If all travel becomes merely a way to risk your life to COVID, we might as well use our luggage to store masks. The accessible-travel industry is not a stranger to that balance. This skill in combining health considerations and a great experience is a mentoring opportunity.

As travel reopens, expect pushback from those who are less concerned about safety. And there are many.

BraunAbility, a site for accessible products, did a Facebook and Twitter survey of wheelchair users, caregivers and disability allies asking, “How do you feel about the coronavirus (COVID-19)?”—48.4% said they were concerned…51.6% said they weren’t worried.

This, I suspect, is similar to the response of the general population. We are split between the worriers and the “copasetics.” My take is that you can be putting someone else at risk, so regardless of your own attitude, you should take utmost care. We are a nation of “rights.” Now we must also be a nation of obligations. COVID-19’s primary source of spread is person-to-person by droplets expelled by a cough or a sneeze, for example…it is highly contagious and can live for a period of time on surfaces. So wash your hands…clean your equipment…keep your distance…and make sure your companion or caregiver does the same if you do not travel alone.

BraunAbility reminds you…

“To protect others, it’s important to clean and disinfect surfaces daily. This could be anything from doorknobs and drawer pulls to keyboards and light switches. It’s a good idea to increase the frequency with which you wash your pillowcase as well. Don’t forget to also disinfect your mobility aids. Canes, walkers, wheelchairs—even your accessible vehicle key fob and steering wheel. You will want to ensure your environment is as clean as possible to protect others from encountering the virus.”

Unfortunately, safety in travel will be primarily up to you.

When I was first asked to write this article, it had a different title and a much more optimistic bent. I planned to call it…

“Don’t Let COVID Stop Your Travels: The World Is Open for Savvy Explorers.”

I wrote to many travel purveyors and asked them what new precautions they planned to take for accessible travel post-COVID. I did not use that title. This one unedited answer I got from a group promoting our national parks is why…

Question: “Is there anything particularly important in the way you receive disabled travelers or older adults after COVID that I could mention in the article?”

Answer: “Thanks for the note. There is nothing I can think of off the top of my head. Good luck with the story.”

Good luck with your new leadership role. Stay safe.

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