Shortsighted Middle East industry must help blind tourists

Latif and his travel guide with lions in South Africa

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, a commercial international air tour operator specialising 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 would come here if action was taken early on.
“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 Stelios Disabled Entrepreneur Award.
“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 a dynamic, blind, world traveller, entrepreneur, TV actor and director with an impressive track record of facing challenges despite his blindness due to the incurable eye condition Retinitis Pigmentosa. By the age of 20, he had 95 per cent sight loss.
He was declared Outstanding Young Business Entrepreneur of the World by the Chamber of Commerce International (JCI) at their World Congress in Vienna in 2005.
Latif is among the speakers at Reed Travel Exhibitions’ Arabian Travel Market 2008, his subject entitled ‘Traveleyes opens the eyes of the world to Blind Travel’. Here Latif will examine the potential of the visually impaired travel market and how organisations can best 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.”