Sightseeing. The word is synonymous with tourism. It conjures images of people with cameras oohing and aahing at sites of historical, cultural, or natural significance.
But what if you can’t actually see the sights? Is travel still worthwhile? Can the blind enjoy touring like the rest of us?
But it is harder. The world is simply not designed for those who are visually impaired. Their needs are too often treated as an afterthought, if they’re considered at all. But as the idea of accessible travel gains momentum, destinations are becoming more aware that accommodating everyone who wants to travel is not only socially responsible and the right thing to do, it’s a business opportunity. And they’re looking for inspiration on how to do it.
Enter TravelEyes. This unique tour operator was founded by Amar Latif. After struggling to find travel options as a blind, solo traveler, Latif decided that if you want something in this world, you either go without, or you build it yourself.
TravelEyes conducts tours all over the world that cater to both visually impaired and sighted travelers. Those who are blind or partially blind are coupled with sighted partners who help them enjoy a fully accessible holiday. Blind travelers benefit from the independence they gain being able to travel without relying on friends or family while sighted travelers benefit from a 50% discount on every tour.
To learn more about this amazing example of accessible travel I spoke with Valery Collins. Valery is an Experienced Traveler living in the UK who serves as a tour manager for TravelEyes.
Q. Tell us a little about yourself.
I had just passed my final exams and was ready to start a career as a solicitor. But first, I decided to have a gap year. I wanted to travel for a year, so I applied for a job as a freelance tour leader with a company called Solos Holidays Ltd. This company specialises in holidays for independent travellers. That was 24 years ago and I am still working for them. I quit the legal profession and have been working in travel ever since.
Q. How did you get involved with TravelEyes?
Solos Holidays has many regular clients, some of whom have been travelling with them for many years. I keep in touch with these clients. It was through one of them that I heard about TravelEyes. He had been on one of their holidays and was very enthusiastic about the company. He suggested I contact them with a view to becoming one of their tour managers. I was not sure that I had the patience for the role but I contacted them and we had a long telephone conversation about the company and the work they do. I agreed to undertake their two-day training for tour managers.
Q. What is your role as a tour manager?
My job is to arrange the daily pairings. Each visually impaired guest is partnered with a sighted guest who guides them. Where possible, I change the pairings every day so that all the individuals in the group get to know each other. Sometimes, this is not possible. For example, we regularly get married couples—one sighted and one visually impaired. Some like to stay together throughout the holiday and some like to pair up with different people.
My role is to ensure everyone is comfortable with their pairings and that the guides understand and perform their role. At the beginning of each trip I go through the role of the guides. I have been trained as a guide but my role does not include guiding. But there are situations where I may do some guiding – for example, if a guide takes ill or a visually impaired guest wants to visit a particular place and none of the sighted guides are able to take them.
I also have to liaise with the hotels we stay in to ensure the rooms are suitable, e.g. no steps inside the rooms of the visually impaired. Generally, evening meals are not included so I have to find suitable restaurants for dinner, too. I also have to check arrangements for tours of attractions to ensure we are booked on to tours suitable for the visually impaired and also the availability of audio guides.
Q. What makes a TravelEyes tour different?
The tour manager has to be with the group all the time – from breakfast in the morning to dinner in the evening. We have to make sure everything is running smoothly so we cannot take a break for a solitary coffee or afternoon nap! I enjoy this aspect of the job as we are very much part of the group from the start to the end of the tour.
Q. What difficulties do blind and visually impaired travelers typically face?
As our blind and visually impaired travellers are not able to bring their guide dogs with them they have to adjust to being guided by a person. Some like lengthy descriptions of the places we visit from their guides and some prefer to listen to audio guides. I encourage the visually impaired to tell their guides how they would like them to deal with any given situation. But the visually impaired are remarkably independent and take everything in stride.
They do need help at airports and train stations before they join the group and when they leave the group. Generally, staff at these places are extremely good so there are no problems. Every guest is given my mobile number before the trip. I call them a few days before departure so I know who may have problems and tell them to call me if they need anything before we meet up at the airport.
Q. What advice would you give to other tour operators if they wanted to make their offerings more accessible for the blind and visually impaired?
It is essential that every visually impaired traveller has a sighted guide they can rely on. The reason it works with TravelEyes is because they recognise that the guides are not free to do exactly as they would like on the holiday, so they offer the guides substantial discounts.
Also, they need to ensure that the visually impaired do tours of attractions specifically aimed at the visually impaired. An increasing number of attractions are offering these tours and I am proud to say that the best tours for the visually impaired I have come across are in London.
Q. What do you think the travel industry as a whole can do to better serve visually impaired travelers?
Accessibility is a big consideration – uneven pavements littered with parked cars are a nightmare, as are steep, narrow staircases.
Special materials should be provided for the visually impaired. Technology is improving every day but I am still not used to emails that talk to me! Audio-guides, braille information boards, tactile plans and drawings are all useful (I had a guide in Rome who made some herself for my group). Also, whenever possible allow the visually impaired to touch exhibits in museums, statuary, even features of buildings.
Q. What have you, personally, taken away from your work with TravelEyes?
Humility. The visually impaired make any problems I might have shrink into insignificance. I have also made some good friends. I really enjoy their company and their humour – they do appreciate that I can’t avoid the words ‘see’ and ‘look’ and they tease me all the time. I find it a very worthwhile experience because I am helping them have a holiday they may not otherwise be able to have. Also, I see another side of the places I visit and it is making me much more aware of the detail of life.
[Due to COVID-19] I am missing working with them but the need for close physical contact means all trips have been postponed until social distancing is no longer necessary.