MATAGALPA – Craig Grimes had checked and doublechecked with the Paris hotel to make sure he could get to his room. He even sent the measurements of his wheelchair.
When he arrived, however, he encountered two stairs leading up to the lift – which wasn’t big enough to fit his wheelchair.
“That’s the kind of thing that pushed me,” said Grimes, 32.
It’s been two years since the Paris incident – one of many snags he’s run into as a wheelchair traveler. Such experiences have pushed the former rock climber to scale his way to the top of the burgeoning tourism market for travelers with disabilities.
With more than 150 million disabled people in the developing world alone, to call the market a niche is an understatement, says the British native, who now lives in the hilly city of Matagalpa, in northern Nicaragua.
Seven years after his life-interrupting fall from a tree that left both legs paralyzed,Grimes began writing online reviews of hotels in Spain from the point of view of a guy in a wheelchair.
The travel junkie’s online writing has since become a full-time gig.
He single-handedly authored and designed a Lonely Planet-style Web site for disabled visitors to Barcelona, Spain. Then he did a site for cruise tours for the disabled.
Now, he’s designing another site for disabled travelers in Nicaragua, where he resides with his girlfriend.
His Web sites, which have expanded to include everything from wheelchair equipment rentals to prearranged pickup for disable travelers at cruise-ship ports of call, have recently won him a nomination for National Geographic’s Geotourism hallenge, a global competition to showcase innovative tourism solutions.
And last month, he sealed a year-long contract with the travel group World Hotel Link to update the Web site’s information on Central America and make the site friendly for disabled travelers.
“It’s nice to be taken seriously,” said Grimes, who can now be seen dodging buses and taxis and popping wheelies to traverse Matagalpa’s potholed streets and battered sidewalks.
He says his latest Web site and the project with the Hotel Link will help turn impoverished Nicaragua into a pioneer for what he calls “inclusive travel,” or tourism for people with disabilities.
The World Bank-funded Web site hooks travelers up with destinations where a friendly face is there to help in case the traveler needs assistance. Grimes is their man in Matagalpa, which will be the location for the Web site’s pilot project in Central America.
Grimes says the pilot project will mean a lot of publicity for this mountainous coffee town.
At the local level, Grimes has been working closely with Nicaraguans with disabilities offering important help in a country where 500,000 are disabled. He says he has watched as peoples’ attitudes towards those with disabilities change when they come across a foreigner in a wheelchair.
“It’s a shame that it takes a foreigner in a heelchair to come here and make changes then there are so many people here with disabilities,” Grimes said.
Grimes has been working with the Matagalpa group “Familias Especiales” to show locals with disabilities how to become more mobile in their hometown. And he has plans to make new tourism businesses, such as the Hotel con Corazón being built in Granada, become wheelchair accessible. But some changes have been less formal.
For instance, at his favorite Matagalpa bar, Los Artesanos,Grimes talked with the owner to make the bathroom more accessible.
Before, he had to be carried down three stairs then up three more to access the bathroom, which was located on the other side of a small dividing wall.Now, thanks to a newly installed ramp and a rearranged entrance to the bathroom, he can access the men’s room with ease.
“That kind of generosity is amazing,” he said.
On the Web
Check out Grimes’ Web site on Nicaragua at www.accessiblenicaragua.com, also, see Grimes’ work at www.accessiblebarcelona.com and www.accessiblecruisetours.com To vote for Grimes in the National Geographic Geotourism Challenge, visit www.changemakers.net.