As accessible tourism continues to grow, one social enterprise is running ground-breaking multisensory trips around Australia.
An Australian social enterprise is on a mission to provide multi-sensory group tours for people who are blind or have low vision.
Cocky Guides runs sensory travel tours all around the country, attracting tourists who may not be able to join conventional travel set-ups.
James ‘Buck’ McFarlane founded the company after working as a tour guide for many years. He was surprised to have never encountered a blind or low vision traveler on his trips.
“I just assumed it’s a massively underserved market because I never saw a white cane user or dog guide handler on any group tour I’d ever done. So I thought, how are people who are blind or low vision doing tours and seeing the world and experiencing things?”
McFarlane found there weren’t many tour operators catering specifically for blind and low vision travelers – and four years ago, he found a new purpose in filling that gap.
Tours for blind and low vision travelers are typically sensory in other ways; they might focus on touching or smelling things in the natural environment to give travelers a sense of where they are.
At Cocky Guides, a similar approach is taken, McFarlane said,we eliminate the sightseeing and then replace it with the sensory elements”.
For example, at a sunset lookout in Coober Pedy, tourists will be invited to taste the saltbush around them to immerse themselves in the experience.
Cocky Guides tour group leaders provide vocal instructions and descriptions to let people know where they are and how to access the next part of the tour.
Importantly, no one misses out; the travelers still get to experience the big tourist attractions, just in a different way.
Prior to the tours, Cocky Guides staff will do site surveys or have extensive conversations with providers to check their accessibility.
McFarlane said he’s proud to be “smashing” stereotypes by taking tourists with guide dogs to places like opal mines and even Fraser Island.
“There’s not too many places we can’t go,” he said.
“We make sure that our trips are always about the client’s experience, and the destination will never cheapen the experience. If we need to stay in a treehouse in the Daintree because that makes the experience better… we’ll go for the treehouse.”
Accessible tourism – making sure tourist destinations are accessible to all people regardless of their disability – is experiencing something of a boom.
from wheelchair accessible beaches to purpose-built accommodationthe industry is being revolutionized, enabling greater access for people with disability on holiday.
Cocky Guides has been incredibly popular, McFarlane said, with “just under 50 day trips in the last 12 months and about 26 short breaks”. Many participants come back again and again, he added, and trips often sell out within 48 hours of being advertised.
McFarlane said many businesses were beginning to make the decision to be more accessible.
Importantly, hiring a person with disability was often the first step, as that person could provide the perspective a business needs to make the necessary changes to their processes that will make their operation more inclusive.
And investments in accessibility don’t just benefit people with disability, he added; they can also benefit other people with mobility challenges, such as the elderly.
As the boom continues, Cocky Guides is hosting the Sensory Tourism and Gold Crest Explorer Expo in Sept.
The expo will showcase accessible local tourism businesses and feature guest speakers on the subject.
On day two of the expo, attendees will also have the opportunity to undertake one of three itineraries to experience accessible travel for themselves.
On the way up
McFarlane is looking forward to growing Cocky Guides over the coming year, hiring more staff and offering more diverse experiences for travelers.
In a sign that the business is tracking in the right direction, Cocky Guides is a finalist in the 2022 Western Sydney Awards for Business Excellence.
In the future, he hopes to have tours led by people who are blind or have low vision.
“We’re really excited about what we’re doing,” he said.