High above the ground, in the rainforest canopy, birds call out, broadcasting their brilliance. The squawk of a cockatoo, the cackle of a kookaburra, perhaps even the whistle of the aptly named noisy pitta.
As you listen, you'll start to form a sense of the wildlife around the Mamu Tropical Skywalk, about an hour south of Cairns. And with a sense of the wildlife, comes an image of the landscape surrounding this series of boardwalks and platforms leading through the trees of World Heritage rainforest.
For some people, listening is critical to appreciating this natural wonder.
It's why Mamu Tropical Skywalk has invested in features for visitors with low-vision or blindness. Signs in braille along the trail and a downloadable app with an audio tour are part of a suite of accessible elements, such as making all pathways suitable for wheelchairs.
The Queensland government has declared this the "Year of Accessible Tourism" so there's been a bigger-than-usual push to open up experiences to even more travellers. Across the state, there are now some wonderful examples of inclusive travel.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Sunshine Coast Airport became the first in Australia to install technology called BindiMaps to help travellers with disabilities like vision impairments navigate from check-in to gate... or anywhere else in the building, for that matter. It uses a network of Bluetooth beacons and smartphone sensors to provide step-by-step instructions in text, map view, or audio prompts.
Off the coast at Port Douglas, Quicksilver's Agincourt pontoon has the only water-powered lift on the Great Barrier Reef, which makes it easy for people with mobility issues (including wheelchair users) to get into the ocean and snorkel amongst the coral. In May, Quicksilver Dive also became the first facility on the reef with PADI accreditation to help people with serious disabilities go scuba diving.
In the outback town of Winton, home to an incredible collection of ancient dinosaur fossils, the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum can be a bit confronting for some people because of the way the subject matter is presented. To help autistic and neurodiverse visitors, the museum has prepared a 28-page document previewing everything they'll encounter, especially warnings about areas that are bright or noisy.
And at the QAGOMA art galleries in Brisbane, there's an impressive range of accessible ways to visit, including wheelchair access, audio-described tours with tactile experiences, special gallery openings with low sensory environments, and tours that include an Auslan interpreter. And now, on top of all that, there's even an "Art and Dementia Program" with a specially curated viewing of artworks and a therapeutic creative making activity.
Of course, it's not just Queensland where we've seen progress. In my line of work, I get a lot of media releases from different tourism organisations, and it's been interesting to see a noticeable increase in the number this year that are talking about accessibility.
With more awareness about some of the issues, it seems attractions and operators are keen to think innovatively, perhaps also encouraged by estimates that about $3.3 billion a year is spent on domestic travel by Australians with a disability (not to mention the international potential). Part of the push is probably also because there's been more funding available from different levels of government across the country for tourism businesses to invest in accessible facilities.
This month, the 2023 South Australian Tourism Awards recognised three winners for accessible tourism. The gold award went to the Adelaide Fringe festival, which brought in initiatives like information videos about venue access and autism-awareness training to all its volunteer workers. Silver was awarded to Monarto Safari Park for its efforts to create wheelchair-friendly and step-free paths across the large site. And the BIG4 Renmark Riverfront Holiday Park won the bronze award for inclusions like large print and braille handouts and a sensory room for children on the autism spectrum.
In Western Australia, the Tourism Council WA announced last month it is partnering with Spinal Life Australia to offer free on-site assessments for tourism businesses that want to know how they can improve their facilities - and, importantly, how they can better communicate their current accessibility situation. (A common plea from advocates is to have accurate information online so potential travellers can make the right decisions.) For a good example, they might look at Busselton Jetty in Margaret River, which was part of an Austrade pilot program to improve accessibility for a new visitor facility at the end of the 1.8-kilometre structure (the longest timber-piled jetty in the southern hemisphere).
And in the Hunter Valley, support from the local council has led to a first in New South Wales - a hot-air balloon that can hold a wheelchair. An Australian designer created a basket that allows a wheelchair user to get in and then stay secure. The inaugural flight with Balloon Aloft launched in late September, giving even more tourists the opportunity to see the region from the sky.
In some senses, each one of these projects may seem small - a basket that can open, a booklet previewing a museum, a walkway through the rainforest that doesn't have steps - yet these changes can have a huge effect on the ability of travellers to visit. And when you know you're going to be able to access these attractions, you're much more likely to head off on a holiday in the first place.
- You can see more on Michael's Travel Australia Today website.