Meet NATIVE, an organization that specializes in helping hotels create accessible environments for people with disabilities. NATIVE—which stands for the Network of Accessible Tourism for an Inclusion Valued Economy — consults with hotels and monitors their progress toward accessibility in every stage of a traveler’s experience, from check-in to check-out. This includes applying embossed braille stickers and door hangers to bed and bathroom features and elevator buttons, to installing cutting edge technology, such as detectable fire alarms for customers who are deaf. Accessibility beyond hotels is also becoming part of the touristic experience, a NATIVE hotel in Morocco, for example, now provides a specialized wheelchair for riding a camel so travelers with limited mobility can experience an authentic trek in the desert. It’s true—read on!
The organization is the brainchild of Pablo Ramón, a tourism expert, who sprang into action after hearing a podcast narrated by a girl who was blind. She described her typical day in the big city, fraught with obstacles, yet spoke with a sense of humor. When she couldn’t answer the question of how she would reserve a room in her favorite hotel, Ramón was struck by the profound need for greater accessibility in the tourism industry. He consulted with webmasters and software developers, and eventually partnered with a team of engineers to create an accessible website for people with disabilities.
NATIVE’s website provides users of all types of disabilities with the capability to research accessible hotels and book reservations—by themselves. Navigation is done in numerous ways, depending on one’s needs—blowing, emitting a sound, or touching any or several keys at the same time, as in the case of a customer with Parkinson’s. The interface is designed to adapt and change to a user’s preferences. This includes navigating via voice commands in several languages, managing different contrasts of background and text colors, and using the keyboard and headphone microphones. And soon from a totally refurbished web platform.
NATIVE has captured global attention. They’ve been awarded and recognized by the World Travel Market, the World Travel and Tourism Council, the Ministry of Tourism of Morocco and many others. The organization was chosen by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) as one of six projects to be promoted and expanded globally before 2022. It was also selected as one of the main projects of the One Planet Sustainable Tourism Programme, with the objective to enhance the impact of sustainable development in the tourism sector by 2030.
ABILITY chatted with Ramón to discuss NATIVE, how its interface works and the hotel industry’s overall progress toward greater accessibility.
ABILITY: What level of accessibility is offered by the hotels in NATIVE’s network?
Pablo Ramón: The website, of course, is designed to encourage users to research hotels and tourism locations that offer accessible hotel options. For example, a customer who is deaf might use the website to find a hotel that offers the latest technology used to awaken people who are hard of hearing in the event of a fire alarm at night.
In fact, customers who are deaf are sometimes the most forgotten by the tourism industry. For them it’s unfortunately common to be dining with family or friends but not being able to laugh at the jokes like everyone else at the table. This situation is easily avoidable using an induction loop, which is put in the middle of the table. It allows customers who are deaf to turn the hearing device on and enables them to hear the sound two meters away yet filters out the ambient restaurant noise.
ABILITY: Do you think the hotel industry has reached acceptable levels of accessibility?
Ramón: To be honest with you, not at all. There are countries with more committed regulations. Maybe the United States with its American’s with Disabilities Act is a reference. At NATIVE, we have developed 144 parameters of accessibility and each hotel has their own available options for each need. But in countries like Spain, with 17 regional regulations that apply different measures, I assure you that not even 1 in 10 hoteliers knows that there’s a national law—the LIONDAU—which requires accessibility details but are met by only one percent of the country’s establishments. Most of them put a wheelchair toilet in a room and believe that they’re done with the topic. The accessibility market is the size of the Chinese population. But it is not a broadly known fact. On a general basis our hotel members have experienced very good feedback from their PMR clients after joining NATIVE, ranging from very loyal clients to even life-changing experiences for the hoteliers themselves, as they suddenly get to know what possibilities exist and encounter people with abilities that they couldn’t imagine before. For example, there was a woman who was blind who said to one of our hoteliers that he had a beautiful building.
ABILITY: If we talk about the first link of the travel chain—online reservations—what do you think is the main barrier?
Ramón: First of all, without an accessible website there is no information for millions of people who want to look for a hotel, even if they’re dealing with Parkinson’s, low vision, blindness or arthritis in their hands. It is shocking to see non-accessible websites on accessible tourism platforms. Who do they communicate to? Do your family and friends have to search for you? With our partners we offer a website that becomes hyper accessible by choosing the option that suits you. If you don’t need to the different navigation options, then it can also serve as a conventional website, in six languages. But if you’re someone who needs an accessible website, you can navigate by blowing, making sounds or playing any key, which substitutes for mouse click. It offers personal autonomy and freedom.
Nevertheless, what every hotel should know is that by making its website accessible it will be easily found by the public that needs it most. It’s in a hotels best interest to be part of an accessibility network such as NATIVE. Also, Google and other meta searchers will promote your hotel in the rankings and with NATIVE you can be ranked amongst the first ones for accessible tourism.
Unfortunately, ignorance on these issues is still widespread. But there are signs of an awakening. Often in conversations with hoteliers, and with students of tourism, I ask them questions such as “How do you wake up a customer who is deaf and sleeping on the fifth floor when the hotel is in flames at 4 a.m.?” Or, “Can a client in a wheelchair do a camel trek?” And we would continue to list solutions that we already use for any limitation. And the faces of our attendees speak for themselves.
ABILITY: What does NATIVE Hotels offer hoteliers?
Ramón: In addition to including their hotel as part of the accessible web platform in six languages, we deliver a pack of adhesive signage in Braille and relief, with all kinds of signage for bathroom amenities, door numbers, door hangers and more, including custom ones to fit any solution. There are additional options such as a hotel map in relief and Braille, and many more. Everything is amortized because there are more customers than you might think looking for these accessories. The hotels are also put in contact with a network of agencies who specialize in accessible trips. They also receive major press promotion as well as other benefits.
Accessibility in tourism is a market for the future and is growing exponentially. Moreover, the invoices generated by customers seeking accessibility are between 30 percent and 70 percent higher than those of standard ones. This is one of the key points shown by an EU study in 2014 with Surrey University. Customers with reduced mobility often travel with their friends or relatives and consume more hotel services.
We also will put hotels in contact with the suppliers of accessibility products near their hotels to create better solutions together.
But NATIVE hoteliers are often very committed to finding solutions to accessibility. For example, Paco Irizar, owner of Ruralsuite Hotel Apartamentos in Spain, designed special furniture to make each apartment’s kitchen wheelchair accessible. A piece under the glass top is removable so those in wheelchair can cook and wash their dishes.
We also worked with Jean-Pierre Datcharry who owns the Kasbah Dar Daïf in Morocco, which led to the creation of a wheelchair adaptable to fit on a camel’s hump. This allows customers with low mobility to enjoy a trek in the desert. Even tents come equipped with adaptive toilets, and NATIVE is currently working on a new model of chair with improved stabilization.
ABILITY: So taking into account that UNWTO itself has recognized the importance of your platform and is asking for its global expansion, what are NATIVE’s immediate plans?
Ramón: NATIVE is one of the six projects to be developed globally before 2022 by the One Planet Sustainable Tourism Program of the United Nations World Tourism Organization. We are designing that expansion plan with a team of almost 50 people in Spain, the United States, France, India and the Netherlands, with a broad spectrum of specialties ranging from software engineers, lawyers, accessibility consultants, specialized developers, and marketing and media experts. We prioritize working with people with disabilities because we believe that our team has to defend what we believe, in addition to being great professionals in their fields. We also test all of our new products and services, thanks to our partner associations and volunteers. The community around us is very helpful and committed to always pushing us further.
ABILITY: And speaking of customers who need attention or accessibility services, what do these travelers think of the measures available to them to enjoy their stay?
Ramón: In most of the hotels, you arrive at the breakfast buffet and, if you’re a person who is blind, you do not know what is in each tray; if you’re a person who is deaf, you do not laugh at the joke that someone just said at the table; and as someone in a wheelchair, you do not get to serve half of them articles. All these problems have a solution if your hotel is a member of NATIVE. The user would find Braille signage on all amenities and tables would have enough room for a wheelchair user, and so on.
Italy’s largest association of people with disabilities gave us the results of a survey of 15,000 accessible tourism users. What 95 percent of the survey participants valued most were not the accessories that made them most comfortable, but the personal treatment received!
From our experience, we have seen this play out in countries who are warm and welcoming and who place a great emphasis on social values; people with disabilities feel more comfortable in terms of respect and approach. For example, Morocco is a frequent destination, and everyone we have spoken to agrees that the people there have treated them better than in other places. We need to have a mind shift and be truly kind in our industry. Hospitality is about giving attention and the care is in the details. And no one should be a hotelier and forget about 15 percent of the world’s population.
Also, as social actors, we need to stop thinking of disability as a disgrace or something technically negative. And entrepreneurs need to see that accessibility is a potential sales argument with a huge and growing market. If there is no room with an adapted bathroom for a member of the group who needs it, then we look for another hotel! And the hotel without the adapted bathroom has just lost four rooms and extra services such as spa, restaurant and others. In addition, the cost of an accessible hotel structure is practically the same as a non-accessible hotel. What increases costs is doing a posteriori work. So an important lesson is to collaborate with consultants and accessibility specialists before the construction of a hotel. NATIVE is here to help the industry professionals make a better and accessible establishment for tourists.
ABILITY: What’s next for NATIVE?
Ramón: In the coming months, we will launch a new platform that offers new incorporations by a team of designers in Spain, the United States, the Netherlands, India and Colombia.
NATIVE is also working with the standards criteria when classifying the accessibility of each establishment. The most important thing for us is to be precise and trustworthy when describing the facilities of each hotel. That’s why we collaborate with consultants and advisers in the field, certifying that every detail on our website is true.nativehotels.org