Advocate Says Bang From Paralympics May Be Too Small to Keep Bucks Coming
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There are million-dollar strategies to turn B.C. into an accessible tourism destination. Then there is Hugh Tollett, who does it for free. Before Vancouver and Whistler, B.C. won the right to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Tollett believed the mountain resort town needed to find a way to be more accommodating of people with disabilities. But now he's concerned that without a bump from the Paralympics, the strong business case for putting resources into accessible tourism collapses and puts his work at risk.
Photo: Russian Nordic skier
There are million-dollar strategies to turn B.C. into an accessible tourism destination.
Then there is Hugh Tollett, who does it for free.
Two years before Vancouver and Whistler, B.C. won the right to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Tollett believed the mountain resort town needed to find a way to be more accommodating of people with disabilities.
He'd lived there since 1993 but began to see the area in a whole new way after being diagnosed with neurofibromatosis. The disease left him deaf, and over time, saw his body riddled with tumours that throw off his balance and leave him at risk of losing his sight.
So he started whistlerforthedisabled.com, providing information about hotels and restaurants accessible for people with visual, hearing or mobility impairments.
It was a first-of-its kind resource for the community.
"I deeply feel accessible tourism will fail if there is no SOUL behind it and people will always look at the bottom line dollar," he said in an e-mail interview.
"You need to show some compassion with all your visitors and the tourism industry can never commit that time as it does not make money for their staff."
When the region was awarded the Games in 2003, what started out as a personal project for him suddenly became top of mind for everyone else.
While the Olympics would expose Vancouver and Whistler to the world, the Paralympics also provided the opportunity to welcome a potentially lucrative and untapped market of travellers with disabilities.
The province of B.C. gave $1.14 million to 2010 Legacies Now for an accessible tourism program, which has included evaluating over 3,000 businesses and designing a rating that lets people know how accessible they are.
"We are one of the most accessible jurisdictions. We've got the airport, which is ranked as one of the best in the world from an accessible point of view, we have icons like Rick Hansen," said Bruce Dewar, chief executive officer of Legacies Now.
"We already live inclusion and accessibility in B.C. and Canada. Now it's getting the tourism industry to see it as a real key market," he said.
Legacies Now also launched the Measuring Up program, funding community projects like accessible trails, elevators for public facilities and job creation for people with disabilities.
Whistler received a $20,000 grant from the program, using the money to form a committee and hire a co-ordinator to study how the municipality could be better at accessibility, among other things.
They also received funding for an accessible playground, now partially complete.
"We're getting a good run to see how truly accessible we are," said Dave Clark, senior manager of visitor services for Tourism Whistler of the opportunity the Paralympics provides.
"The feedback as a destination we've received is that we're very accessible."
Though Tollett tried to get funding, he was repeatedly turned down, even as others used his work as a resource for their own or tried to replicate it.
He did form a partnership with Tourism Whistler, who helped him get a 1-800 number to handle bookings and gave him a cut of the commission.
"He has definitely been ahead of the game in many regards for sure," said Clark.
In the months before the Games, Tollett, 44, helped out families from as far away as New Zealand navigate planning accessible holidays.
The challenge is bigger than ramps and roll-in-showers. It took a family from Holland eight months to plan a a one-month trip, including figuring out whether they could get their father's electric wheelchair on an airplane and find a rental car that was accessible.
The other challenge was doing it on a budget. The big hotel chains have money to invest in accessibility, the smaller and cheaper ones don't.
Sometimes it was as simple as getting transportation companies to mention they offer accessible services.
"Working with Pacific Coach Lines bus transport on (the YVR to Whistler route) getting them to add accessibility to their website and start to promote it helps out a lot," Tollett said.
"Transportation (is) such a key to bringing people with disabilities to Whistler."
Estimates suggest the accessible tourism market is worth $13 billion a year in North America.
But while Whistler was at capacity during the Olympics, for the Paralympics, it wasn't.
Hotels are only slightly fuller this March than last March, and the increase is mainly due to people formally associated with the Games.
Clark said the key for Whistler wasn't how many tourists they could lure for the Games, but how many they can entice to visit afterwards.
"What we're seeing is people that are in this particular market are getting much higher awareness of the destination," he said.
Tollett made no bookings for the Paralympics. He attributed the less- than-expected boost in part to how people travel.
"A lot of it is due to the mind-set of people with disabilities, I think," he said. "They feel secure in their own neck of the woods, so to speak, and it is such a pain to travel and set things up, why bother, I guess."
But Tollett said he's concerned that without a bump from the Paralympics, the strong business case for putting resources into accessible tourism collapses and puts his work at risk.
"Everyone has an excuse," he said. "They think I will make money and be able to pay myself something and give back to the community. Sadly, it will take years for this to be profitable and for accessible tourism to kick in."