Tourism is big business. About 1billion people travel to a foreign country each year and spend around 1 trillion dollars. Little wonder why so many places compete for a share of the pie. There is, however, one large segment of travelers that is often overlooked: the physically disabled.
Let’s look at the American market. There are around 55 million people with physical disabilities in the United States. That's around the population of Texas, Michigan, Georgia, Colorado, and Arizona combined!) While people with disabilities are not a homogeneous group (disabilities vary in severity and condition- some involve hearing,others motion, for example) , they do share a common need: additional/special services. The segment also seems to be a large market willing to spend on services. According to a recent Harris Poll (conducted in conjunction with the Open Doors Organization and the Travel Industry Association of America), the 50 million Americans with disabilities have a combined income of more than $175 billion. In 2002, the American disabled segment represented 32 million trips and spent more than $13.6 billion on travel ($4.2 billion on hotels, $3.3 billion on airfare, $2.7 billion on food and beverage, and $3.4 billion on retail, transportation, and other activities). This study suggested that these travelers would double their spending if some minor amenities were made available. Meet and greet programs at airports, preferred seating on airplanes, hotel rooms closer to amenities, and employees who go out of their way to accommodate guests with disabilities topped the list.
Demographic trends also suggest that “people with disabilities” is a rapidly growing segment. Here’s one obvious reason. As the large Baby Boomer population races into its golden years, more and more Boomers will be faced with mobility challenges. It is easy to see how Boombers with disabilities stemming from conditions like arthritis will seek warm travel destinations- increasing the total amount of disabled tourism spend.
This leads me to my main point: Let’s say there are 2 very similar Caribbean destinations. Both places are appealing to travelers: terrific weather, inviting hotels, soothing beaches, hospitable populations, and similar currency rates. But one destination markets itself as more accessible (and encourages its hotels, restaurants and airports to make the necessary changes). This accessible destination would be better able to tap the large disabled market and likely see a sharp rise in its tourism dollars. It wouldn’t be the first time accessible changes have had an impact. On a micro level, for example, Scandic Hotels, a chain with hotels in Sweden, Nordic and North European countries in 2007, gained 15,000 extra overnights from accessible rooms. That’s great results that happen because of smart marketing.