Access all areas: The rise of accessible tourism in Australia

Travelling with disability is challenging, but it’s not impossible. Here’s how accessible tourism options in Australia are improving.

Many of us take travel for granted, but it’s not so easy for people living with disability.

That’s 4.4 million Australians, according to the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics report, released in 2019.

When Julie Jones’ son was born with cerebral palsy 28 years ago, in the early days of disability awareness and the internet, she wondered whether family holidays would be possible.

“When we started travelling with Braeden, there was a massive lack of information,” Julie recalls.

“It left us feeling quite isolated.”

Julie persevered and found out what was possible.

And the Jones family, including wheelchair user Braeden, have done everything from jetskiing to quad biking.

Understanding diverse needs

Julie began sharing her knowledge on her blog Have Wheelchair Will Travel and has since become co-founder and editor of Travel Without Limits magazine.

“Information has improved, but it’s still not good enough,” she says.

“People often think disability is a one-size-fits-all situation, but it’s not.”

Like everyone else, those with access needs and the friends and family they travel with have diverse holiday preferences, from budget to luxury, relaxing to adventurous.

Plus, there are many types of disability.

“You can’t just say ‘accessible’ on your website,” former Paralympic swimmer Karni Liddell says.

“Accessible to who?”

The needs of wheelchair users vary, and not everyone with a physical disability uses one.

There are also millions of Australians with sensory disability — which impacts their ability to hear or see — or with neurological disability, such as dementia.

As both Karni and Julie point out, improving accessibility doesn’t only benefit the one in six Australians with disability, but also others.

Fewer steps and more ramps and elevators, for example, make life easier for the elderly, the injured and those pushing prams.

Inclusive travel still has a long way to go

Karni made headlines in 2022 when she was barred from boarding a flight with her battery-powered wheelchair.

Despite having certification confirming it was safe for air travel, the Accessed That travel podcast co-host has experienced this distressing situation numerous times.

Karni believes travelling with disability has become harder over the past 30 years because of increased concerns about public liability and occupational health and safety.

“There’s a misconception that we’re the riskiest people in the room,” she says.

“It’s not true — we all know that lots of able-bodied people hurt themselves on holidays.”

Accessible tourism initiatives

Happily, there have been some wins in recent decades.

Julie describes Queensland’s Year of Accessible Tourism 2023-2024 as “a massive success’’.

She is enthusiastic about the beach wheelchairs offered by select seaside councils, TrailRider all-terrain wheelchairs available at some national parks, and the Companion Card program, which provides free entry for carers.

She also welcomes the Changing Places toilets for people with high support needs, as these facilities enable them to stay out for the whole day.

Karni says the National Disability Insurance Scheme has changed her life and the lives of others living with disability.

“It’s allowed us to travel; we can now bring carers with us and buy equipment to take with us, so we’re all really wanting to travel,” Karni says.

5 of Australia’s best accessible tourism destinations

For beach access: New South Wales

Six of the beautiful beaches in the Shoalhaven region have free beach wheelchairs, available in child and adult sizes.

The fat wheels make rolling along the sand a breeze, but be sure to book ahead.

Other South Coast region pleasures include Jervis Bay Wild whale watching and dolphin cruises.

The wheelchair-friendly Port Venture vessel even has a hoist for boom net access.

For the high life: Tasmania

At Tahune Adventures, explore the Huon Valley’s spectacular wilderness.

Start with the riverside Huon Pine Walk’s wheelchair-friendly boardwalk, then enjoy the Airwalk’s panoramic view, 30m above the ground — just request the shuttle bus to bypass the steps.

Even people with very limited mobility can experience the thrill of the Eagle Hang Glider, a cable-controlled solo glider with supportive harness.

Tahune Adventures’ cafe and accommodation are also accessible.

For cruising: Queensland

Quicksilver Cruises has a water-powered lift at its Great Barrier Reef floating platform for those who can’t enter the water via steps.

Swim from the lift’s seat to snorkel the UNESCO World Heritage reef, with flotation aids such as pool noodles if needed.

People with different abilities, needs and levels of mobility can go even deeper with Quicksilver Dive.

For hiking and happy trails: Northern Territory

The viewing platform and 10km trail around Uluru are wheelchair accessible and the ideal start to your Red Centre adventure.

Ayers Rock Resort has an accessible shuttle bus, accommodation and dining, and the Wintjiri Wiru illuminated drone show’s viewing platform is designed for wheelchairs.

Use off-road tyres on the path through the Field of Light installation.

For the arts: Victoria

Victoria is emerging as a premier destination for accessible tourism, particularly in the realm of arts and galleries.

In Melbourne, art lovers will find world-class institutions such as the National Gallery of Victoria and Melbourne Museum, both of which are designed with comprehensive accessibility features including ramps, lifts and audio guides.

The city’s inclusive approach extends to the Arts Centre.

The complex is wheelchair accessible, offering ramps, lifts and designated seating.

Hearing loops, Auslan-interpreted performances, and live captioning assist those with hearing impairments, while audio-described performances and tactile tours support visually impaired visitors.

Accessible restrooms are available on all levels, and the Arts Centre welcomes assistance animals and participates in the Companion Card program for free carer entry.

Beyond Melbourne, regional galleries such as the Bendigo Art Gallery and Geelong Gallery also prioritise accessibility.

More travel inspiration: 

Written by Patricia Maunder.