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UAE taps multi-billion dollar inclusive tourism market

inclusive tourism uae Dubai Miracle Garden
The Dubai Miracle Garden is among the many UAE tourist attractions providing specialised facilities to make experiences more inclusive
  • Over 1.3bn people live with some form of disability
  • Billions lost each year by overlooking this market
  • Accessible facilities at airports, hotels, malls and museums

Amsaan Accessible Tours claims to be the first company in the Mena region specialising in creating unique tours for deaf people, tapping into the underserved and yet multi-billion dollar inclusive tourism market.

The Dubai company uses technology to provide tours with all information in sign language.

There are deaf guides for group tours, on-demand sign language interpreters for effective communication during the trip and a dedicated mobile app for access to tickets, itineraries and local tips.

Vitalii Mykhalchuk, CEO of Amsaan, says: “Increased awareness of the issues faced by deaf individuals in society and the realisation that deaf people can travel represent significant steps toward inclusivity.”

Around 1.5 billion people worldwide live with partial or complete hearing loss and 430 million people worldwide require rehabilitation for disabling hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization.

And the World Tourism Organization estimates that more than 1.3 billion people live with some form of disability.

“Given this accounts for around 16 percent of the global population, making travel and tourism inclusive is essential,” says Dr Sean Lochrie, associate professor at Heriot-Watt University Dubai.

According to the European Network for Accessible Tourism, the world economy is losing $150 billion each year by overlooking this market.

Consumers also strongly support the need for accessible tourism. Some 92 percent of those surveyed last year by booking platform Expedia said they believe it is important for travel providers to meet the accessibility needs of all travellers.

Seven in 10 said they would opt for a travel option that is more inclusive to all travellers, even if it is more expensive.

“It is critical for businesses to be more inclusive and accessible to the disability population, otherwise they risk not only loss of revenue, but also reputational damage,” says Fred Maahs Jr, founder and CEO of global accessible travel and tourism consultancy Maahs Travels.

Much has been done by the UAE to cater for what they describe as “people of determination”.

At the end of 2022, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman of Dubai Airports, announced the formation of the Dubai Team for Travel and Tourism.

The team was given the remit to meet regularly with disabled people to see what could be done to improve facilities at airports, airlines, hotels, shopping centres and other tourist attractions.

From Dubai’s Burj Khalifa to the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s top attractions largely boast wheelchair access.

Attractions and events such as Global Village, the Dubai Miracle Garden, Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Al Ain National Museum all provide specialised facilities to enhance the experience and make them more inclusive, says Dr Lochrie.

Abu Dhabi hotel management company Rotana said it has made provisions to help guests with mobility, hearing and visual impairments, including wheelchair-accessible doors, lowered peepholes on room doors and audible emergency alarms.

Guy Hutchinson, Rotana president and CEO, says: “Through regular training sessions and curated programmes, we ensure team members have the right skills to take care of the requirements of our special needs guests.”

Catering for hidden disabilities

But not all disabilities are visible. Hidden disabilities can include autism, dementia, epilepsy and a huge number of other conditions.

A 2022 survey from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) explored the needs and habits of autistic individuals and their families.

It found 87 percent of respondents did not currently take family holidays and 97 percent were not satisfied with current travel options for families with autistic family members.

inclusive tourismGovernment of Dubai Media Office
Crown Prince Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum visits the Dubai Autism Center

“Challenges such as autism, diabetes, restricted mobility, poor sight or hearing and even sleep disorders can bring barriers to daily lives,” says Kathy Sorenson, director of human resources at Premier Inn Mena.

Last November the hotel chain took part in the global Purple Tuesday initiative, an international day to recognise and celebrate the importance of guests with disabilities, including less obvious conditions such as learning difficulties, mental health challenges and speech impairments.

This included launching the Hidden Disability Sunflower Scheme in the UAE, under which people with invisible conditions carry a globally recognised sunflower badge.

The H Dubai in June became the first hotel in the emirate to achieve the Certified Autism Center designation from IBCCES, demonstrating its “strong commitment to making their services accessible and accommodating for individuals with autism and sensory sensitivities”.

Dubai’s Atlantis Aquaventure has also earned the accreditation from IBCCES, the first for a water park in the Middle East.

Accessible airports

Earlier this year Dubai International received an accreditation from the Airports Council International under its Accessibility Enhancement Accreditation Programme, which recognises global airports’ commitment to accessible travel operations.

The certification acknowledges DXB’s ongoing work to cater to passengers with both physical and hidden disabilities.

This involved the launch of a travel planner for pre-travel preparation, designing an Autism Friendly Route and implementing a large-scale training programme.

As Jamal Al Hai, deputy CEO at Dubai Airports, says – accessible tourism is “an important sector for our national economy”.

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