The tourism industry still treats amenities catering to seniors as another customer preference, not as a necessity. A lot of tourism businesses likely won't get serious until they see and hear about their failures to serve this lucrative demographic shift.
While the share of the global population over the age of 65 continues to grow, the tourism industry remains behind when it comes accommodating, supporting and providing equitable access to them.
People over the age of 65 are the world’s fast growing age group, according to the United Nations. For the first time in 2018, older persons outnumbered children under the age of five. By 2050, older persons will outnumber those ages 15 to 24, and one in six people will be over 65.
Tourism businesses will have to adapt to this demographic that will inevitably form a greater part of the customer base. On tours, this group may need more breaks, walk at a different pace, find hot temperatures more difficult to walk through, need assistance getting into vehicles and not be as mobile on rougher terrains, according to Kelly Torrens, vice president of product for Kensington Tours, for which the over 55-age group is its core demographic.
Those with disabilities will make up a larger portion of older traveler segment. Nearly one-fifth of adults aged 65 and older reported they had difficulty with seeing, hearing, communication, mobility, memory or concentration, or self-care, according to the Administration for Community Living’s 2021 demographic profile. The most common one was mobility, which includes walking or climbing stairs, at around 39 percent.
Facilitating this group will be a challenge for an industry that has historically not been very accessible. At Skift Global Forum East, disability rights activist Tanzila Khan pointed out that the industry imposes a “disability tax” by failing to provide equitable and fair access to all travelers.
Accessibility expansion at many historic destinations and older hotels face barriers. Elevators, for example, can’t be installed at many older buildings often because of their World Heritage status or their structural integrity, said Torrens.
“Machu Picchu is not accessible. It has plenty of steps. It’s hard to move around,” said Alvaro Silberstein, CEO and co-founder of online travel agency Wheel the World, which helps travelers find accessible offerings. Wheel the World trained a tour operator to incorporate an altering wheelchair that makes the attraction somewhat more accessible.
Many hotels are still not friendly to those who need mobility support. Even in hostels and four-stars hotels in cities like Rome and Paris, it can be difficult to find an elevator that fits more than two people, according to Kensington Tours Director of Product Jason Susinski.
“If you’re traveling on a tighter budget, or you’re carrying your own luggage, you’re having a hard time navigating the elevator,” said Susinski. “It’s not until you’re reaching the five star category that you’ve got a big enough elevator, someone to help you with your bags.”
Hotels can adapt if they are willing to invest the resources. Hotel Brooklyn in Manchester, England, for example, worked with an accessibility design team to make enhancements like removable grab bars in bathrooms and a spacious restaurant with seating options to those with canes and other mobility aids.
The destinations and tourism businesses that are the farthest ahead are the ones that are already popular with retired travelers. Costa Rica, for example, thanks to its history of hosting retired U.S. citizens, has adapted to the demographic, said Silberstein. Costa Rica is ranked as one of the top ten countries to retire to, according to International Living Magazine’s 2023 Annual Global Retirement Index.
Some tourism agencies are investing resources to catch up on the accessibility front. Travel Oregon most recently provided over $1.4 million in grants to 45 local tourism agencies and federally-recognized tribes to support their capacity expansion projects, many of which revolve destination accessibility. Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce, for example, received $35,000 to support its accessibility enhancements.
Within the tourism industry, the cruise companies are ahead of everyone else and they have been quietly taking a greater share of older travelers from tour operators. Cruise ship rooms, facilities and the indoor experience are highly accessible to older travelers, according to Silberstein.
“They’ve done a pretty good job for seniors and people who have disabilities,” he said. “They would much more prefer to stay in a hotel and explore Venice rather than just being in a cruise and stop for two hours in Venice, but because the cruise is more accessible, they choose the cruise. “
The typical age of the cruise passenger has been edging upward these past few years. Between 2019 and 2021 the average of a cruise passenger rose from 47 to 48, according to Cruise Lines International Association.
That’s not to say cruise companies still doesn’t have a lot of work to do. Ports still lack accessibility and make getting off the ships difficult for many travelers, said Silberstein.
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Photo credit: The global tourism sector is still ready for the growing over 65 traveler demographic. Cristina Gottardi / Unsplash