Middle East needs to do more to accommodate tourism for the blind


Middle East tour operators, travel agents, hotels and governmental bodies need to do significantly more to accommodate the needs of the visually impaired tourism market, which currently represents 161 million people worldwide, according to a specialist in tourism for the blind.

Amar Latif, founder and director of ‘Traveleyes’ – the world’s first commercial international air tour operator to specialise in serving blind as well as sighted travellers, says a key challenge facing the Middle East is the need to tailor holidays around features which will stimulate senses other than sight.

He urged the regional industry to adopt website technology, aid visually impaired tourists, and liaise with services and organisations in destination countries to build constructive links and help and advise on development and the fostering of best practice.

And with industry figures predicting that by 2020 tourist numbers to the GCC will swell to 150 million a year, Latif believes, increasing numbers of visually impaired travellers feature in arrivals if action is taken now.

“As expectations of access, empowerment, and technology develop, more and more people with a visual disability are questioning old assumptions regarding their exclusion from experiences and activities that able bodied people take for granted,” said Latif, who recently became the first recipient of the prestigious ‘Stelios Disabled Entrepreneur Award’, sponsored and presented by Easy Jet’s Sir Stelios Haji-Iannou in conjunction with the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability.

“Access is opening on all sides and expectations of inclusion are, quite reasonably, increasing. This is essentially a ‘niche’ market sector, with quality, appropriate features and attention to detail being crucial elements.

“It remains a problem that the majority of travel websites are inaccessible for blind people. With us, customers don’t need to have an in-built speech programme; information can be made accessible with screen reading software. Speech readers are advanced and if websites are created in an accessible way, they can even describe the accompanying pictures and the graphics to blind people.”

Latif is the latest addition to an impressive seminar speaker line-up for Reed Travel Exhibitions’ Arabian Travel Market 2008, the Middle East’s premier travel and tourism event, which takes place at the Dubai International Exhibition and Convention Centre (DIECC) on May 6-9.

During the seminar – ‘Traveleyes opens the eyes of the world to Blind Travel’ – Latif will examine the potential of the visually-impaired travel market and how organisations can adopt best practice initiatives to meet the needs of blind travellers.

“The main challenges to this market have been a succession of vital issues pertaining to the provision of a full service with features that are specifically geared to the needs of both blind customers and sighted ones. These are features that have previously been unavailable, or certainly difficult to obtain, from commercial air tour operators,” said Latif.

“Companies who have embraced the disability access issue with open minds and wholehearted commitment have benefited not only from commendations for their excellent customer service, and the best possible public image, but they also tend to report huge boosts to their trading figures.”

Covering a wide-diversity of key industry trends and issues, Arabian Travel Market 2008’s seminar programme is the largest to date with 14 sessions planned over the four day event.

Attracting may of the industry’s heavyweights, the seminars, which will be staged on the show floor for the first time, will cover critical human resource issues in the region, ground-breaking medical tourism initiatives, recruitment and retention strategies in the Middle East’s hotel industry, the future of travel agents and the development of online travel bookings and the role of the internet and new web marketing techniques as the industry evolves.

“These seminars concentrate on crucial issues currently facing the regional and international travel and tourism industry. We have been in long-term talks with exhibitors and key decision makers to identify core trends and initiatives that will have a significant impact on the industry at large,” said Simon Press, Exhibition Director, Arabian Travel Market.

“The travel and tourism industry is one of the fastest growing and most dynamic business sectors globally and we fully understand that the ability to stay ahead of the pack and to keep up with new trends, technologies and opportunities is critical to running and managing a successful business.”

Arabian Travel Market is held under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, Ruler of Dubai, and under the auspices of the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, Government of Dubai.