San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Wheelchair-Accessible Tourism Improving

IMAGINE coming to Costa Rica for avacation and finding yourself unable tovisit the beach or take in the mountain vistasoverlooking vast coffee plantations.For that matter, imagine a vacationwhere you could not cross the street, eat ina restaurant or even get to a bathroom.That is the challenge facing disabledpeople who have a yen to travel but findfacilities, tourist attractions and accommodationsinaccessible.ENTER Monic Chabot, a Canadianimmigrant to Costa Rica who has workedfor much of the past 11 years to raiseawareness in government officials, businesspeopleand the tourism industry aboutthe needs of disabled tourists, especiallythose who use wheelchairs.“A lot has been done in the last 10years to improve the situation here,”Chabot said, giving special praise to a1996 law that respects the rights of handicappedpeople and has made governmentagencies and private businesses more sensitiveto the needs of the disabled.“Monic is making the industry moreaware of the power of niche marketing,”explained Lawrence Poole of Montreal,Canada, who has worked with Chabot toprovide training seminars and develop projectsin Costa Rica. “While we like to thinkof tourists as a monolithic mass, there arein fact different small niches that collectivelyadd up to the big numbers.”Poole said that today, 15% of touristsare considered to be in the disabled niche,while 15-30% are in the senior citizen’sniche. He advocates that the tourism industrymarket and develop programs for thoseniches rather than designing broad programsfor a wide market that may leavesome groups out.CHABOT and Poole have presentednumerous training seminars here to helpthe tourism industry learn how to maketheir facilities more accessible to disabledtravelers.Chabot also designs specialized toursfor those who need particular assistance.When a potential client contacts her, shelearns what the traveler’s disability willallow them to do. She ascertains whetherthey will be traveling with a companion, ifthey will need an assistant here or if theywill travel independently.She then sets out to find accessiblehotels and attractions that are willing towork with her client. While some facilitiesremain completely inaccessible, Chabotsaid she is pleased by the growing numberof businesspeople who are sensitive to thespecial needs of her clients.“For example, there are more than1,000 permits for accessible taxis in CostaRica,” she affirmed. “And the hotels arebecoming more accessible.”Chabot has taken groups of disabledtravelers to the rain-forest canopy, thedeep jungle, volcanoes, a jungle river andmangroves, Pacific beaches, a coffee plantation,an eco-center and many otherattractions.In fall 2001, she led the first group ofblind people ever to climb Mount Chirripó,the country’s highest peak, at 12,530 feet –a feat considered an accomplishment forany climber.“COSTA Rica’s access has greatlyimproved since my first visit in 1990,” saidPoole, a paraplegic. “Then, I was an oddityand I remember conversations withTicos who would ask me why I was here.However, the support I got from everyonewas extremely encouraging.”But, Costa Rica may still have a way togo in this area.“There are access issues in Costa Ricaas there are everywhere,” said BlakeBunting, a paraplegic who lives in LosAngeles and visited Costa Rica in 2002with the help of Chabot. “The most obviousand difficult are the high curbs withoutcurb cuts in the city.”POOLE warns potential travelers tocheck before they travel.“The big thing to watch out for are theplaces that post or advertise themselves asaccessible but do not meet universal accessstandards,” he said. “There is nothingworse than arriving someplace with expectationsand then discovering the huge differencesin what is promised by theAmericans with Disabilities Act or theusual U.S. or Canadian standards and whatare found to be local standards.”He also advises that while some peoplemay want to visit the jungle or a remotebeach, they may not have the fitness levelrequired.Likewise, Chabot cautioned that thosewho use wheelchairs need to be realisticabout their expectations.“Some of them want to travel independently,but there are limits to the accessibilityof some activities,” she said. “Forexample, while some people may want togo kayaking independently, they may haveto have a guide to help them.”Warning that some agencies mayrefuse to take disabled people on someadventure trips, she cautioned, “We cannotask those who provide services to putthemselves at risk.”NEVERTHELESS, Chabot is encouragedby the response of Costa Rica’stourism industry to the potential of disabledtourists and the growing numbersselecting Costa Rica as a destination.Travel for the disabled is as importantas for anyone else, Poole said.“Once disabled people have access tolife’s beauty and pleasure, developing ourcapacities so we can contribute to thesocial fabric becomes a real potential.”For information on Monic Chabot’sservice for disabled travelers,

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