San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tourism Industry Slowly Ramping Up Access

On a scale of one to 10, Alberto López gives Costa Rica’s tourism industry a five or six when it comes to access for people with handicaps.

López, executive director of the National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR), said the industry has become more wheelchair friendly in the decade since the passage of the 1996 Law for Equal Opportunities for People with Disabilities. But compliance with the law is not consistent across the industry.

Hotels are supposed to offer one handicapped- accessible room for every 10, according to the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT), and many hotels do not comply with this rule, López said. He is not aware of any hotel or tourist attraction that has signs in Braille for the blind, as the equal-access law requires.

Still, the fact that even a small percentage of tourist businesses have made modifications to increase handicapped access puts the industry ahead of the curve in a country that has few handicapped accessible public spaces (TT,May 26).

Luís Amador, technical director for the Construction Chamber of Costa Rica, said while many new businesses are conforming to disability law requirements, most have not gone out of their way to change existing structures.

“I don’t know of a single existing installation that has adequate modifications,” he told The Tico Times.

Chicago native Erik Shiozaki, the owner of Go with Wheelchairs, a Costa Rican tour company, said pickings can be slim for handicapped tourists. But after 10 years of leading tours in the country, he has compiled a short list of wheelchair friendly attractions.

La Selva Biological Station is near the top. Located in the Caribbean lowlands about a 90-minute drive from San José, the tropical reserve has made several sets of modifications to improve access for people in wheelchairs.

About five years ago, the station renovated two bathrooms to accommodate wheelchairs, and about three years ago, three of the attraction’s 19 rooms were renovated to be handicapped accessible, said María Isabel Salas, the park’s sales manager.

The 43-year-old reserve, which is a popular place to observe thousands of species of plants and animals, does not have any Braille signs, but it does have ramps and cement paths that are wide enough for wheelchairs. The changes were made in response to requests from tour groups and to comply with the equal-access law, Salas said.

Monic Chabot, a Quebec native who has spent 14 years organizing tours for people with disabilities in Costa Rica and advocating for handicapped access to tourist locations, has her own list.

She has found improved access in locations including the Turu Ba Ri Tropical Park located in the canton of Turrubares, southwest of San José, and the Guayabo Lodge in Santa Cruz de Turrialba, on the Caribbean slope, she said.

The idea for the Turu Ba Ri park was conceived in 1996, the year that the equal access law was passed, and the park was designed to be easily navigable by wheelchair, said marketing representative Gabriela Saborío.

The rainforest adventure park has ramps, wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, and cemented trails that can be navigated by visitors in wheelchairs, Saborío said. The gondola that carries visitors through the rainforest canopy and the buses that ferry tourists between the park’s attractions can both accommodate wheelchairs.

Guayabo Lodge, a bed and breakfast located near the base of Turrialba Volcano, took advantage of renovations to make two rooms more wheelchair friendly, lodge owner Rossana Lok told The Tico Times. The rooms have wide doors and ramps, and the bathrooms have space for a wheelchair to turn around.

Because the improvements were planned when the rooms were designed – one room was remodeled and the other was an addition – making the rooms accessible didn’t require any extra investment, Lok said.

Calypso Tours, which offers cruises to Tortuga Island in the Gulf of Nicoya, has had wheelchair ramps to help patrons on and off the dock since it purchased a catamaran 12-years-ago, said Mauricio Castro, reservation manager for the company. The bathroom on board is not wheelchair accessible, however.

Walter Monge, chief of tourism management for the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT), said the ICT has put emphasis on wheelchair accessibility. Currently, in order to earn the official approval of the institute, hotels must have wheelchair ramps, wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and at least one room in every 10 built to accommodate a wheelchair, Monge said. Purchases of materials for such accommodations, such as grab bars for handicapped bathrooms, are tax-deductible, he added.

The ICT has not spent time promoting access for blind or deaf people, but that is the next step, he said. “We are going little by little.”

That is too slow for Shiozaki, who said hotels and tourists attractions should do more to fully accommodate his clients. “They’ve improved some, but for the majority there is a long way to go,” Shiozaki said.

He admits wheelchair accommodations are more common than when he began offering tours 10 years ago, and some tourist attractions have slowly responded to his requests for more wheelchair access. But truly accessible locations are still scarce, he said, adding that many supposedly accessible bathrooms lack needed equipment such as grab bars.

The bathrooms at the Guayabo Lodge do not have grab bars; those at Turu Ba Ri do, as do those at La Selva, according to representatives of each.

Overall, services for and attitudes toward people with disabilities have improved since Chabot began working in the tourism industry here, she said, but tourist businesses need to increase employee education about disabilities and focus on more than just wheelchair access.

“A lot has been done, but not for all people with disabilities,” she said.


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