Sept. 22, 2006
Making Israel more accessible
Specialized tour company allows travellers with disabilities a more
SIMON GRIVER ISRAEL PRESS SERVICE
Being a tourist can be a bewildering and frustrating experience
when the reality half-way across the world turns out to be different
from the pictures in the brochure, or when arrangements made by
travel agents begin to unravel. For the disabled, this frustration
can turn into misery when staircases and narrow doors present insurmountable
obstacles, despite a hotel's promise that rooms are wheelchair accessible.
Israel 4 All, an Israel-based company, is helping provide solutions
for travellers with special needs and physical limitations by organizing
customized travel services and individual itineraries for the hard
of hearing, visually impaired, wheelchair-bound and even slow walkers.
"The problem is that hotels and sites in Israel tend to tell
tourists beforehand that they are wheelchair accessible, and then
worry about the logistics when the visitor arrives," explained
Mark Reitkopp, Israel 4 All's senior tour guide. "Even if the
hotel staff go out of their way to help, it can still be very embarrassing
and inconvenient for the tourist."
Reitkopp recalled the story of a tourist with an electric wheelchair
that was too wide to enter any of the rooms of a certain hotel.
His vacation was ruined, even though the hotel staff were very kind
about lifting him in and out of his room.
The good news, according to Reitkopp, is that most of Israel's larger
hotels and the major tourist sites and museums are more accessible
for tourists with physical limitations. For the most part, however,
smaller hotels, B&Bs and off-the-beat locations are not geared
for this market.
"We check out every hotel and tourist site in advance,"
said Reitkopp. "If necessary, we provide a vehicle with a ramp
able to transport those with special needs. We also build an itinerary
together with the visitor that is guaranteed to avoid any surprises
and emphasizes personal preferences such as holy sites, historical
and archeological locations, nature and views. We even specialize
in active holidays, including abseiling and sea sports."
Israel 4 All was founded by Israeli-born Eli Meiri, who had previously
managed the special needs department of a major Israeli tourist
agency before setting up his own business in 2000.
Reitkopp, who immigrated to Israel from the United States in 1985,
is a graduate of the Ministry of Tourism's guide course. "Israel
is a long way behind North America and Western Europe when it comes
to catering to tourists with physical limitations," he said,
"but the country is fast catching up."
He cited the fact that in March 2005, the Knesset passed the Accessibility
Chapter of the Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law, one
of the world's most progressive pieces of legislation on the subject.
However, the law gives local authorities 12 years to implement all
the accessibility requirements, so it will be some time before significant
improvements are felt.
"The biggest nightmare is Jerusalem's Old City," Reitkopp
observed. "Getting to the Western Wall is easy, as we are allowed
to park very close to the site, but it's impossible to reach much
of the Old City."
Reitkopp awards top marks to Israel's National Parks Authority for
its sensitivity towards visitors with special needs and made special
mention of the Masada and Bet She'an National Parks, where three-dimensional
models enable the blind and visually impaired to literally feel
their way around the site. At the same time, highly trained tour
guides are on hand to provide detailed verbal descriptions of the
sites being visited, as well as offer Braille maps, diagrams and
Chris Stark, a blind visitor from Canada, explored Israel with the
help of Israel 4 All. "My visit to Israel was an extraordinary
experience," he said. "I was able to feel its uniqueness
by using all my senses."
For deaf visitors, there are sign language guided tours that use
professional sign language interpreters. These visitors are provided
with amplifying electronic devices as well as light and vibration
Israel 4 All has also developed a range of itineraries for the visually
impaired, which stress the sounds and smells of Israel and include
visits to the country's pulsating markets - such as the Carmel Market
in Tel-Aviv - Mount Hermon and the Dead Sea. A new itinerary stressing
taste is being developed, which will take in some of the country's
finest restaurants and some of the estimated 150 wineries in Israel.
Israel 4 All also works together with other Israeli organizations,
like Yad Sarah, to provide special equipment for those with disabilities
and to ensure that required medications and appropriate health services
are available when needed.
Inevitably, all this personal service comes at a price and Reitkopp
estimates that a custom-built itinerary can be considerably more
expensive than a regular vacation package.
"But for many people, a visit to the Holy Land is much more
than just a vacation," he stressed. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime