Ausnew Home Care | Queensland government invests $12m to make holiday destinations more accessible to visitors living with disabilities

Queensland government invests $12m to make holiday destinations more accessible to visitors living with disabilities

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Seasoned world traveller Martin Heng has visited more than 40 countries around the globe.

As a former editor for Lonely Planet, travel was both his job and his passion.

But a 2010 cycling accident that caused quadriplegia that changed the way he travelled forever.

He said accessibility is now front of mind when he books a trip.

"There's an awful lot of planning that goes into travel because you can't afford to be disappointed. If you have access needs, it's not just a disappointment it's usually a disaster," Mr Heng said.

"I learned that very early on in my journey you have to make sure that what you're told is what you're going to be faced with when you arrive."

Mr Heng said a step in the wrong place, too many stairs or a bathroom that is difficult to access can quickly make a fun holiday a stressful experience.

He said on a recent trip to London, hotel staff told him a bathroom was "accessible", when in reality, it was not.

"The accessible bathroom was actually a bathtub with grab rails, and I said to them, 'How am I supposed to get into the bath? I'm in a wheelchair'."

Keen ocean explorers Kerry-Lee and Paul Gockel in the ocean
Kerry-Lee and Paul Gockel's passion for ocean swimming takes them on trips around Australia and abroad.(Supplied)

Married couple Kerry-Lee and Paul Gockel also ensure they do a lot of careful research before embarking on an adventure.

Their shared passion for ocean swimming has taken them around Australia and the world, including to Fiji three times, the Philippines, Indonesia and most recently to Heron Island in Central Queensland.

Kerry-Lee was born without arms, while Paul, a Paralympic swimmer, has mobility issues.

"Accessibility for us is more than just having the space in the room or no steps — it's really about the location of those rooms in relation to the resort itself," she said.

Kerry-Lee and Paul Gockel standing by a pool, smiling
Kerry-Lee and Paul Gockel said disability facilities are sometimes poorly maintained.(ABC News: Alice Pavlovic)

Multi-million-dollar investment to help billions

Their experience comes as the Queensland government declared 2023 to be 'the year of accessible tourism', with hopes an investment of $10 million for small to medium tourism businesses will improve the infrastructure and technology to make holiday destinations more accessible.

A further $2 million will be spent on raising awareness of accessibility needs and promoting accessible visitor experiences.

Tourism Research Australia estimates there is $1.8 billion in untapped potential just by improving accessibility to tourism experiences, accommodation and transport. 

A man in a wheelchair poses and smiles at a lookout over the ocean
Disability advisor Lachlan Chapman believes the idea is in danger of being "a flop".(Supplied: Lachlan Chapman)

'Demoralised and depressed'

However, Griffith University senior disability adviser Lachlan Chapman fears the year will be nothing more than lip service and "could be a total flop".

"I don't think Australia is ready for a year of accessible tourism," Mr Chapman said.

"How can we have a year of accessible tourism when there are no accessible tourist destinations?"

Mr Chapman had an accident in 2018 that resulted in him using a wheelchair. 

He advises local governments and industries about accessible access but says his own experience has left him feeling "demoralised and depressed".

"A lot of people are out there creating disability action plans and putting up flyers saying 'We're becoming more accessible', but they never really are," Mr Chapman said.

A man in a wheelchair sits looking through lookout binoculars with a boy standing beside him also looking through a binocular
Lachlan Chapman finds that most tourist destinations in Queensland don't provide genuine accessible options.(Supplied: Lachlan Chapman)

At a recent waterskiing competition on the Sunshine Coast, Mr Chapman booked a hotel that listed itself as accessible, only to discover it was a work in progress.

"I had one step into the hotel room and a toilet that I needed assistance to use," he said.

"I was showering on the floor on a rubber mat, because I couldn't get my wheelchair on my commode into the shower.

"So instead I'm transferring off my chair onto the floor.

"I guess you tend to develop a thick skin and you put on a brave face on a daily basis, because you know that we're not living in an accessible world." 

Mark Olsen from Tropical Tourism North Queensland smiling with trees behind him
Mark Olsen said Tropical Tourism North Queensland has created an accessible tourism hub to help travellers plan their trips. (ABC News: Baz Ruddick)

Mark Olsen, CEO of Tourism Tropical North Queensland, said one in eight people identify as living with a disability.

"Worldwide that is 2.2 billion travellers, when you take into account their travel party, looking for inclusive experiences," Mr Olsen said.

He said the tourism industry needed to "galvanise" ahead of 2023 and the Olympics to ensure northern Queensland becomes "one of the most inclusive and accessible destinations".

Accessibility underwater

Dive instructor Richard Stevens with a diver underwater
Dive instructor Richard Stevens (L) wants to give people of all abilities the chance to experience diving.(Supplied: Libby Stirling)

Dive instructor Richard Stevens recently launched his Cairns dive company in a bid to make diving more accessible for people of all physical abilities.

The decision came after he saw a video of a person who was a quadruple amputee diving, inspiring Mr Stevens to re-qualify as a disability diving instructor.

"I thought, 'If that guy can do it, anybody can do it'," he said.

"We want to make sure that it's accessible and equitable for anybody with any type of disability. We look at their abilities and then we tailor a program to their needs."

Richard Stevens with would-be diver Jason East in a pool
Richard Stevens helped Jason East get back in the water after an accident 12 years ago took him away from diving.(Supplied: Marlin Coast Diving)

His first client as a disability diving instructor was a crayfish diver from Thursday Island, who had become a paraplegic after an accident.

"It was an immense, intense experience for him because for the first time in 12 years he was underwater, which was his natural home as he had [completed] 5,000 dives or something," Mr Stevens said.

"To have that [experience] cut off was pretty traumatic. He probably felt that was never going to be possible."

'Built from the ground up'

Spinal Life Australia's Healthy Living Centre has seven self-contained, full accessible units for visitors to northern Queensland.

Regional manager Margaret MacDonald said it's the only one of its kind in regional Australia.

"It hasn't been retrofitted. It's been designed and built from the ground up with accessibility in mind," she said.

Margaret MacDonald from Spinal Life Australia's Healthy Living Centre with a kitchen blurred behind her
Margaret McDonald said since opening, the centre has hosted travellers from across Australia.

Doors, blinds, and windows are controlled by remote, while kitchen benches and cupboards are height adjustable.

"People are thrilled when they walk through the door," she said.

"You can see them looking around, understanding that it's going to be a really easy holiday and a really easy place for them to stay.

"I think one of the best things I've heard and I've heard it a few times is, 'This is the first time I've been able to get away with a real confidence to know what I'm going to is accessible.'"

"That's something really special."

She said while she has been impressed with how many tourism operators in Far North Queensland are offering accessible experiences, there is still a long way to go.

"I think in five years' time, there will be more and more operators seeing the opportunity there," she said.

Accessibility not always a 'huge cost'

Mr Heng said the tourism industry has been slow to "catch on" to the importance of catering for people with disabilities due to concern for the costs involved in making their premises more accessible.

He said there was also a fear of "doing the wrong thing".

"All that needs to be done is to be asking people, 'How can we help you? What can I do to make your stay more comfortable?' It's simply a matter of enhanced customer services."

Mr Heng said the accessible travel market has been valued at $11 billion in Australia, $US60 billion in the US and £15.6 billion in the United Kingdom.

He said ramps for wheelchair users can often be installed temporarily or at a low cost, while changes for people with vision impairments, hearing difficulties and other disabilities can also be done quite cheaply and without "massive renovations and alterations".

"Travel is a force for good when practised responsibly. It exposes you to different people, different cultures, different foods, different perspectives on life as well as different landscapes and different environments," he said.

"Why should people with disabilities be denied that right and that pleasure?"

'A rich market': Minister

Queensland Tourism Minister Stirling Hinchliffe said declaring 2023 as the year of accessible tourism made economic sense, as well as just being the right thing to do. 

"The reality is that accessibility is about universality and making our experiences and opportunities available to everyone," Mr Hinchliffe said.

"People living with a disability are a rich market, particularly because some people travel alone, but many travel with family and carers, which obviously increases the output that contributes to the local economy. 

"You get a multiplier effect immediately."

Source: ABC

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