A Mélange conversation with the European Network for Accessible Tourism(ENAT) President, Annagrazia Laura

 

History of ENAT

ENAT, the European Network for Accessible Tourism was founded in 2008, as a Belgian non-profit association, which promotes accessibility to tourism for the benefit of all citizens. ENAT began as an EU-funded pilot project which had the aim to mainstream the concept and consideration of accessible tourism and disability issues.

It was established by a number of organisations and individuals whose common goal was to make tourism accessible for all.

These included:

  • EWORX S.A., Athens, Greece
  • Fundación ONCE, Madrid, Spain
  • Vzw Toegankelijkheidsbureau, Hasselt, Belgium
  • Association National pour le Logement des personnes Handicapées asbl, Bruxelles, Belgium
  • VisitBritain, London, UK
  • Tourism for All in Sweden, Helsingborg, Sweden
  • Work Research Centre, Dublin, Ireland
  • Ministry of Tourism, Athens, Greece
  • Disability Now, Thessaloniki, Greece
  • ATHLA Onlus, Italy
  • Turismo do Centro, Portugal

The demand for accessible tourism, in its wide conception of Tourism for All, was and still is now growing. It’s now recognized as an opportunity for the tourism sector rather than an obligation. If the tourism industry wants to maintain and develop quality, sustainability and competitiveness, it must support and develop tourism which is accessible for all.

However, almost always, when “Tourism for All” is taken into consideration by the tourism sector, the focus of all activities, promotions and offers is normally on tourists with disabilities as a separate “segment” of the market, to be managed as such, and therefore without genuine inclusion in a mainstream logic.

The founding members were the organisations which belonged to the Partnership for the development of the pilot project. Since the founding, many other members were accepted as full members. The Network is ruled by a Statute, approved by the majority of the full members and is led by an international Board of Directors. Its members are national and regional tourist bodies, public and private tourism companies, tourism professionals, academic and research institutions and non-governmental organizations of people with disabilities from more than 30 countries worldwide.

The goal of ENAT, since the very beginning, has been the promotion of accessible tourism in Europe and in the rest of the world, in an inclusive perspective of environments, products and services.

As President of ENAT, share with us some of your history with this organisation

I was elected in June 2013, during the Annual General Assembly which was held in Avila, within the IV International Congress Tourism for All, jointly organised by ENAT and ONCE Foundation. My election was sponsored by the representative of one of our founding members, the Austrian organization, IBFT, Ms. Angelika Laburda, and I am proud to say that, when she retired from her professional life, she has been asked to remain on the board of directors as an Honorary Member.

My term, as for any other member of the Board, is four years and my second one will come to an end in June 2021. The Statute doesn’t put any limit to being re-elected. The decision is on me, on the strength I will have to guide the Network for another term as well as the need to give space to someone else, to be open to new ideas and new challenges.

When I was elected, I focused on two main objectives: “Consolidation” and “Development”. After 5 years since the creation of ENAT, we had acquired a wide recognition and our aims and strategies are well appraised at international level. We will have to work hard to maintain our position as a recognised reference point for tourism organisations, national, regional and local authorities and other networks with similar aims and strategies. Our opinion, advice and support has to be present in every situation when issues dealing with accessible tourism are brought up for important decisions on policies, promotion and product design.

We have recently decided to make greater efforts to engage with key organisations and decision centres, making our voice heard and representing our stakeholders at all levels.

I am proud to say that our positioning now is following that roadmap and that ENAT is regarded as a primary organisation for Tourism for All by the UN World Tourism Organisation, many Tourist Authorities, public and private bodies, by tourism businesses and end users.

I am convinced, however, that these accomplishments shouldn’t be credited to my presidency as such. In ENAT we are all used to seeing ourselves as a team, to cooperate and to count on each other, to make joint efforts to reach the goals we set and to share successful results.

Are all European nations represented at ENAT?

We have full and associated members in the majority of EU member states and in Geographical Europe. Not all countries are represented. We are not looking for “country” representation as such. Our members have to be committed to share our principles, to adopt and follow the ENAT Code of Good Conduct, and to work in their own country and at the international level, within the activities that we promote: to promote and develop Tourism for All, aiming at the maximum inclusion of the end users both in terms of being able to enjoy leisure activities (Art. 30 of the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities), as well as to get job opportunities in the open labour market.

What is ENAT’s primary purpose?

Our primary purpose is, as noted above, to make Tourism for All accessible to everybody and to promote it in Europe and around the world. This general statement, however, is the headline for a lot of initiatives which are aimed at involving different stakeholders, both public and private, to act in their own field, towards the recognition of rights, the design of tourist products accessible and usable by everybody, to plan destinations to become more friendly towards people with specific access needs, including seniors who are representing a huge potential and real market in Tourism.

What are ENAT’s top five major accomplishments over the past ten years?

There are major areas where ENAT has been actively working to increase the confidence of travellers, as well as the competitive positioning of the tourism industry.

Accessibility Standards

ENAT’s work on standards for accessibility in the tourism sector continues as we take part in two major International and European initiatives on this subject. An ISO Working Group on “Accessible Tourism for All”, was established in 2017 under ISO Technical Committee 228 Tourism Services, to help develop a Standard on “Tourism for All”. This project is led by the UN World Tourism Organisation and Fundación ONCE, Spain, with whom ENAT enjoys a close working relationship, having developed several guidance documents with them for the tourism industry. The ISO Tourism for All voluntary Standard promises to be a valuable reference, that will help to align policies and practices in accessible tourism at international level. As such it should provide a much-needed technical basis for businesses and public sector bodies to invest and develop new tourism services to serve the growing accessible tourism market, within the broad framework of sustainable development.

ENAT is also acting as official liaison organisation with the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), in the Technical Committee for Mandate M/420 “Public Procurement for an Accessible Built Environment”. This work involves developing a new European Standard which is intended to support EU Public Procurement and the European Accessibility Act, which is expected to be passed by the European Parliament in 2018.

World Tourism for All Quality Programme

This unique certification programme is the culmination of several years of development, responding to the need for defined and consistent quality criteria for accessible tourism training, service delivery and marketing. The World Quality Programme will provide a guided pathway for service providers to improve and qualify their business, leading to the Quality Label, recognising their commitment to access and inclusion for all, enhancing staff competence and ensuring first-class customer service.

ENAT NTOs’ Learning Group

Established on the initiative of some National and Regional Tourism Organisations, brings together public sector executives working on accessible tourism policy, strategy, business support and marketing. These members, who represent the “cream” of Europe’s public bodies in accessible tourism, come together to share experiences, build a common understanding and set concrete goals for innovation and improvement in accessible and inclusive tourism. I am convinced that working side by side with the public bodies involved in the promotion of tourism is essential to share and develop a unified vision on how the tourism offer should be shaped to meet requirements and expectations of visitors and to plan together the most convenient and workable strategies to reach the goal.

Human Resource Development

This represents another important area of intervention that ENAT promotes, linked to the improvement of the human resources skills in welcoming tourists with specific access needs and how to make this added knowledge beneficial for the tourism enterprises.

Through our participation in several outstanding EU-financed projects we now have a wealth of online and face-to-face training offers which can be useful to smaller and larger tourism enterprises wishing to qualify their services and the quality of their offer. ENAT members are ready to support training initiatives both in Europe and further afield.

Job opportunities

We have recently completed a study for ILO, on the job opportunities for people with disabilities in the Tourism sector. Tourism, once stabilized again after the COVID19 crisis, offers an incredible opportunity for employment to people with specific access needs. These human resources can make the difference in the tourism services by combining the technical skills to the personal experience they can put into the relationship with customers. In comparison with the timid , but constant opening of the tourist system to package “accessible” products, an element not to be underestimated  in the offer of a quality product has been largely taken for granted: the ability of the human resources, who operate in the “mainstream” tourist area, to understand, use and manage all elements, both technical and behavioural, which identify a correct relationship between the service providers and a customer with disabilities.

The possibility to enter a paid job is not only a right recognised by the Convention on the rights of people with disabilities, but could have also beneficial effects on the whole system of the tourism offer by:

increasing the quality of the service offered by providing a peer-to-peer relationship with customers with specific needs

being able to have a better understanding of the requirements to be met

being able to improve the offer to make it more inclusive and efficient

What are ENAT’s consistent challenges?

The main challenge is still the lack of a “destination” vision at all levels. There are many initiatives from different bodies, both public and private to improve and give visibility to the initiatives and results of single components of the tourism service chain (hotels, restaurants, cafes, museums, green areas, etc) but an overall destination strategy will involve agreeing on a roadmap and plans that will have a medium to long-term time frame.

There are many declarations, manifestos and documents at the European level, both from the EU Parliament, the Commission and other relevant bodies, aiming to reach full inclusion goals. ENAT has supported many of these documents with the aim to get to sound and durable results. In Europe a common definition of accessibility criteria is still lacking but there are very few possibilities that a common basis will be achieved in the near future.

Another significant challenge is to have all EU Member States sharing a similar opinion about accessible tourism and the recognition of the visitor’s needs and rights. Goodwill is often not enough for a satisfactory development of accessible products and proposals, but the European Commission has been very active from this point of view, launching calls for proposals to sustain innovative projects to allow inclusive participation for all.

Do you think Covid-19 will negatively affect European travel for people with disabilities?

COVID19 has hit tourism in a dramatic way all around the world. The very hard measure of the shutdown, adopted in many countries, almost stopped all tourism activities with the severe consequence of huge loss of income and of jobs. Many activities are still now at risk of being bankrupted. The possibility that the pandemic will gain force again in the Autumn is also preventing people to plan travelling again.

This situation is much more difficult for tourists with disabilities who have specific requirements to make their trip safe and comfortable. They might risk not finding the required assistance, and have problems in case they need to go back home in an emergency and may also be blocked by quarantine.

The UNWTO has issued a Paper on the inclusive response for vulnerable groups. ENAT and the ONCE Foundation have cooperated with the contents within the framework of the Memorandum of Understanding we have signed with UNWTO.

When do you anticipate tourism will resume?  What type of “normal” do you envision?

All studies and market research made at national and European levels consider 2021 as the year when tourism activities will slowly go back to normal but that is only assuming that a vaccine or treatment will be found in the coming months. It all depends on the pandemic situation, if and when the whole planet will be “virus-free” in order to resume normal transport connections with all the countries and plan tourist exchanges. This is particularly important for Europe since 3 of EU countries (France, Spain and Italy) are in the top 5 list of the UNWTO as the major destinations of the world tourism exchanges.

‘Normal’  will be very different from the one we have known in the past: the need for social distancing will reduce the offer of the tourist facilities (hotels, restaurants, social events, etc.) thus the tourism economy will still be a critical issue. With less jobs and less economic possibilities, many tourist flows will be reduced. In our opinion this will affect more tourists with disabilities and specific access requirements for many reasons: a loss of income and a possible loss of Tourism for All offers, due to the reduced capacity of the tourism industry.

What organizations does ENAT work with in each country to ensure that its resolutions are helpful and enforced? 

There are many at national and international levels, normally public bodies, particularly if they are committed to create a destination system for tourism activities and promotion. In this case the issues of Tourism for All are brought to their attention in order to build medium and long term plans and define strategies to create an accessible destination management.

ENAT is cooperating to define tourism improvement strategies and references to help national and regional tourist boards include accessible tourism in their long-term goals.

At an international level, the long-lasting cooperation with UNWTO and the European Commission has brought many important results. Our collaboration with UNWTO Ethics Unit has enabled us to offer the Tourism Industry valuable manuals on Recommendations on Accessible Tourism and on Accessible Information in tourism, among other guidelines. Some best practices in accessible tourism were outlined in the brochure that the UNWTO launched in Bangkok, to celebrate the World Tourism Day 2016, where the main topic was Accessible Tourism.

What has been the biggest obstacle that ENAT has been faced?

At the beginning we were just another organization dealing with Tourism for All. In any country, when some opinion leaders or stakeholders acknowledge that Tourism for All is an economic as well as ethical issue, they form an association which tries to be credited as “the one” at national and mainly at an international level. Recognition of the goals of the Network as compared to many other similar organisations has been one of the biggest obstacles, even if, our concept since the beginning was, and still is now, that we do not need or want competition but cooperation, integration, working together. Through cooperation and the signature of Memoranda of Understanding at national and international level was one of the methods to overcome the initial challenges. Now we are working with a lot of public and private organisations, NGOs and associations for the rights of people with disabilities. This is the action line we are still following and it represents one of our top priorities in our strategic plan 2020- 2024.

If there was one thing ENAT could change globally, what would it be and why?

To reach a global understanding of the real meaning of Tourism for All, increase general and personal awareness of diversity as wealth, and make every one of us understand that barriers and disabilities are just a state of mind.

In Conclusion   

When we started, we were confident that our ideas and concepts will lead to a different understanding of Tourism for All, of the customers and the environment. A lot was at stake: we struggled, we negotiated, we kept our confidence on a future being more inclusive for disability issues and, I am convinced,  we won our bet…but we will not let our guard down. The final result has not yet been fully achieved.

email: enat@accessibletourism.org

website: www.accessibletourism.org