Travelling with a disability is rarely straightforward and one may think that travelling with a disability to somewhere in Africa on a more adventurous holiday would just simply be impractical and impossible. Mike Hill from Botswana has every reason to argue otherwise. Mike founded a company called Endeavour Safaris who specialise in organising adapted tours and safari adventures around Southern Africa. Mike provides a fascinating account of his journey starting Endeavour Safaris and how they developed their unique service. Mike also provides a unique insight into the challenges faced by disabled people in Southern Africa and how his company are trying to create economic opportunities for disabled people in the tourism industry.
In the beginning…
I started my company Endeavour Safaris nine years ago, and many of my colleagues and other tourism related contacts questioned my sanity. My business model mostly revolved around taking people with disabilities into the wildest parts of Southern Africa, and many people thought that this was impossible.
We had proven natural beauty, wildlife, cultures and history in the countries where we operate, namely South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique and Zambia, which we wanted people with disabilities to also enjoy!
We have had quite a steep learning curve since the beginning, and it continues to this day. By way of example, in my naivety, I thought that disability was pretty much only to do with wheelchairs!!! I have learnt since, that disability is incredibly diverse and can mean many different things and Endeavour Safaris had to adapt accordingly and ensure that we tailor the service we offer to each client who has their own unique needs.
When Endeavour Safaris was started, we invested much money into vehicles and lifts and wheelchair lock down systems, which meant we had achieved transport. In essence we could travel anywhere there was a road.
We have by now hosted many people with a variety of physical disabilities on our safaris and tours and we are proud that up until now there has not yet been any request that we were not able to achieve. We have always said, should you need to lie permanently in a bed, we will put a bed in our vehicles for you, there should not be a limiting factor on what you want to accomplish! The airlines are another topic, but in saying that, they have drastically improved and will continue to, because more people with disabilities are travelling, they have no choice but to stay abreast with needs of disabled travellers.
One of our biggest challenges faced then, and remains on-going is accessible accommodation. Therefore, we have had to be innovative and creative! One of our main products in Botswana in particular is our accessible mobile camps that we developed. We designed our own large and specially adapted tents with en-suite bathroom, to give us freedom to travel into wild areas within the national parks where no accessible accommodation exists.
In other areas where we lacked accessible accommodation, we worked out our routings of the prime areas we wanted our guests to visit. Then we began approaching various accommodation establishments, from small to large to find appropriate lodging.
To abbreviate the exercise, the usual answer was, “yes we can convert X amount of our rooms as per your specifications, however I need a guarantee of how much business you will bring me this year and the next???” We constantly found ourselves in this catch 22.
The business case for the tourism industry adapting to the needs of disabled travellers
I think my point that I am trying to make is, the more that the disability community travel, the more they are in the public eye, which essentially means, companies such as mine do not need to prove to the hospitality industry that this market exists, it is lucrative and therefore worth all the investment necessary to make establishments accessible.
In order for things to work, there must be a commercial aspect, few establishments will make necessary changes, just because it is the right thing to do.
The point we need to reach is when a wheelchair user or a person with another type of disability can enter a shopping mall, or grocery store and hardly any surrounding folk take any notice.
This will be the point that says, as a community, we have fully integrated.
The wider disability community in Southern Africa
Currently my company is trying to create training and employment opportunities, in the tourism industry for local people living with disabilities. We very much believe in the capabilities of our local disability community and can achieve many professional and other employment possibilities through tourism.
Local people living with disabilities, particularly in the poorer communities have very little possibility of achieving “normal” lives. They have very little income from disability grants and many areas are absolutely not accessible. There are often very few work opportunities, due to a lack of skills and education. Therefore, no money, no transport, no accessible training facilities often sadly results in no opportunities.
In our current projects, these are all issues we hope to address. Tourism is a key element in uplifting the local disability community, and it can be repeated many times over across Africa successfully if the correct procedures are in place.
Our ultimate dream is to be able to host our guests with and without disabilities (Inclusive Tourism) professionally through design and be able to train and employ local disabled people at the same time in these tourism projects.
I guess the key message in all of this is carry on travelling!
Mike Hill, Endeavour Safaris
For more information on Endeavour Safaris, visit their website.