Travel without tears
What is accessible tourism? Why does it matter? And who benefits from investment into it? I end my season of posts on barrier free travel in Germany‘s Rhineland with a large piece of Black Forest gateaux and a flick through some of the region’s barrier free achievements…
Accessible chocolate cake
We are sitting in Café Müller, in Gemünd and I have easy access to the largest slices of chocolate cake I have ever seen. The owner is sitting with us, showing us a book he has contributed to.
“This is Eifel pizza. Have you ever had Eifel pizza before? No. You haven’t because I invented it.” he smiles. “You can only have it here.”
It is a delicious looking creation and I’m tempted to order one, but I’ve eaten too much already.
“You have finished? Then I will take you to heaven. Come with me.”
At this point, I assume we are going to the kitchen. After all, what place is closer to heaven than the oven of a cake shop? But no, in a surprise move he leads us all into his toilet. He sweeps his arm around the huge space and flicks the taps on and off.
“What do you think?”
His enthusiasm is infectious. He has spent £10,000 installing disabled facilities. He is as excited about the bin in the loo as he is the Black Forest gateaux. This enthusiastic chef is one of a band of people working to make make Germany accessible for all.
Who benefits from barrier free travel?
Accessible tourism isn’t a phrase I’d ever uttered until I travelled to the Rhineland to look at their barrier free travel initiatives. But while I haven’t employed the terminology, I’ve definitely used the facilities, both at home and around away. I vividly remember the joy of discovering the airport travelator while getting through JFK nine months into a pregnancy with with a backpack and two young children. We’ve also pushed our bikes through the disabled access doors of many hotels in Eastern Europe to keep them safe in storerooms. And my mother’s walking frame has been a game changer for a family visit to the theatre or a restaurant, with a disabled lift now a necessity rather than a short cut to the best seat.
Catering for diverse needs of family travellers
At some point in most people’s lives, the issue of mobility will crop up; and barrier free travel isn’t just about people in wheelchairs. It’s about people who can’t get around very easily for whatever reason, yet still want to enjoy seeing the world. These people don’t want to hear about what they can’t do, but what they can.
“People with small children are often affected as much as wheelchair users; they might be different but the needs are similar,” says Karina Krauss, Project Manager for Barrier Free Travel in the Rheinland-Pfalz region. “A lot of our facilities are also aimed at older people with limitations. They wouldn’t call themselves disabled, but they have something that makes life more complicated. I always think of my own grandpa in this category,” she continues.
Karina is determined ambassador for those with mobility or sensory difficulties. We spend two days with her, touring the Rhineland Palatinate; seeing for ourselves how far tourism officials, museums, theatres, national parks and businesses have come in developing a more accessible region.
Accessible travel information
Part of Karina’s job recently has been developing an online database of disabled facilities for people who travel.
“A team of trained people were sent out to more than 200 hotels, restaurants, museums and tourist information centres to gather information that could change the visitor experience of people with limited mobility or sensory perception. They asked questions like ‘how wide are the doors? Are there steps? If there are steps, is there another way in? How are the bathroom facilities? Can you hear the elevator? Does it tell you which floor you are on?’
Karina explains that for example, a hotel can only be part of the database if the doors are at least 70 cm wide. She eventually hopes to make the database available to tourists in different languages. For her, tourism isn’t about looking after a few, but including everyone in the offer.
Everyone pulling together
Karina’s job is made easier by chains like Embrace which employ disabled people and cater for people with all sorts of limitations in 37 hotels across the country, (we stayed in their enlightended Inndependence Hotel in Mainz) and also by forward thinking independent hotels, like the Koblenz hotel that offers facilities for the blind like vibrating alarm clocks and flash lights that alert the hard of hearing to a visitor at the door.
In four days, I view enlightened accessible travel initiatives in cities like Mainz and Koblenz and in small towns and the countryside across the region. Karina can’t join us for our last day, in the city of Dusseldorf, as she is scheduled to give a presentation to a conference of blind people in Koblenz. So she hands us over to Dusseldorf’s Tourism Marketing Manager Marcus Kuller.
Over lunch in one of the city’s oldest restaurants (accessible to wheelchairs and pushchairs alike) he shows us his city’s guide to barrier free travel. It is a printed travel bible for those with mobility issues and the level of detail is breathtaking; there are even three categories of disabled parking. I try to imagine British transport and tourism companies like the London Underground getting their act together to provide access and information like this but I can’t. Having dragged pushchairs up and down the stairs of the central line, I know full well what a task it would be to update systems that, despite all the progress made for the Olympics, are still verging on the Victorian.
Neil, a wheelchair user travelling with us who regularly takes London taxis because of the stresses of getting down to the underground tells me he’s of the opinion that ‘Victorian’ is a generous term. “Since coming to Germany and seeing what they’re doing, I’m starting to think the UK is quite Neanderthal,” he sighs.
This post is part of a short season of posts about accessible travel and tourism in Germany. Follow the link to find other posts on this theme.
There’s lots more information on accessible travel in Germany available from the German National Tourist Board website.
Disclosure Note: Thanks to the German National Tourist Office for their support in helping us to bring you this story.