In their effort to find niche markets, the tourist destinations have finally realised that disabled people constitute an advanced market with advanced needs and lot of perspectives; a market that belongs among the most loyal groups of clients. Let’s not forget that Europe is getting older and the obligations of the countries members of the European Union (http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/activities/einclusion/index_en.htm) increase, therefore more and more opportunities are given to the disabled individuals to travel under the same circumstances as the rest of the citizens.
The journey starts from their house, from their personal computer, usually by searching Google. However, as Abbott (2001) argues, even though internet provides opportunities of democratization of society through freedom of expression, sometimes of even radical opinions, it is still predominated by websites which usually reverberate the dominant ideology and stereotypes, or it is rich in advertising websites which rarely consider disabled individuals as a remarkable market. Therefore, the trip of a person with disabilities is mandatorily continued only on those websites of suppliers or tourist services which can cover their first need of accessibility, by following the various protocols of accessibility for the web design and content, like the ones developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, known as W3C.
Most of the Cypriot and Greek websites of the big tourist enterprises do not meet those criteria and therefore are not accessible, also evidenced by the research of Zafiris and Zacharias (2001 and 2003). The high importance given on the artistic design and not on the usability and accessibility of a website, lefts disabled individuals out of the online marketing. To avoid any possible misunderstandings, at this point we need mention that most of the criteria defined by W3C are easy to achieve, since clear guidelines are given. Those criteria do not necessarily deprive the artistic design of a site. On the contrary, they strengthen good design and facilitate the designer to avoid any possible excesses and mistakes which without realizing may affect the success of the website. The various accessibility protocols include special design guidelines of the web material with regards to accessibility for particular disabilities (e.g visual disability, motor disabilities, etc.) but at the same time include general instructions as to the usability of the website, its readability, the content presentation, the search engines, the easy and well understood reservation systems, like www.sybelio.com, and many more, which contribute in the creation of a human oriented website, which is easily accessible to every citizen of the modern society. Research findings have shown that the accessible design of a website can increase at least 10% the number of the people visiting the website.
If the tourist enterprises of Greece and Cyprus want to attract, and please allow us to repeat here the word want, an inclusive market which doesn’t exclude disability, they should not only build ramps next to the staircases, or create rooms with special equipment, and doors suitable for wheelchairs etc., but they should also give the possibilityof accessibility next to their well designed websites, so that online material, advertising and information will be appropriate and accessible to people with for visual, hearing, motor and learning disabilities, etc. Everybody has the right and we have the obligation to offer exactly the same and equal services we offer to the rest of the community. The website accessibility should belong in the same legal framework as the physical accessibility. If one organisation offers internet services to the public, the legislation should have enforced it to offer the same services in accessible websites, as has already started in a number of European and other countries with the guidelines of Universal Design.
If Greece and Cyprus become leading markets through accessible internet and offer their tourist services in accessible websites, and this is well advertised, then we “endanger” to become accessible destinations. After all, the conviction of the European Union is that by 2010 all the public websites to become accessible then why not all the tourist websites, too? Of course it is not enough our websites to be accessible. We are obliged to have our towns, villages, beaches and mountain resorts accessible and inclusive, and this is only achieved though real and feasible human oriented plans and strong political decisions by the local authorities, decisions that can be materialized quickly. My recent experience, in teaching an e-commerce course to 10 young people with hearing disabilities, under the Synergia Programme of the European Union, has confirmed the many opportunities those people have in online marketing.
Petros Mavros is a Business Development Director of Avantless ltd