All abilities trek to the summit of Mount Kosciuszko - Australia's highest peak

All abilities trek to the summit of Mount Kosciuszko - Australia's highest peak
All abilities trek to the summit of Mount Kosciuszko - Australia's highest peak - © Jennifer Johnson 2008

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Accessible Cairns - Regional Destination Development

In following on from the blog discussion on Research is only good if it brings about improved access and accessible experiences - Lessons from Dunedin, New Zealand - we are presenting an article on accessible tourism in Cairns, Queensland Australia. The article is the outcome of a regional accessible destination workshop undertaken for the Queensland Government and Cairns Regional Council in 2011. It is an excellent example of partnership between Cairns Regional Council, a cutting edge local government access officer Ian Chill (featured in previous blog post wheelchair bungy jumping), local tourism operators and other stakeholders. It is one of many tourism initiatives that Far North Queensland Tourism are hoping to reinvigorate regional tourism in the area.

Cameron, B. (2012). Accessible Cairns - destination experience development. Australasian Leisure Management, 56(January/February), 58-59. Retrieved from

Accessible Cairns
Bruce M Cameron assesses Cairns’ credentials as an accessible destination

In an attempt to provide tourism operators in Cairns with an insight into Accessible Tourism and its revenue generating possibilities, the Cairns Regional Council and Queensland Department of Communities sponsored an Accessible Tourism Fourm last year. The Forum attracted a broad spectrum of tourism operators including accommodation providers, attraction and experience owner/managers and transport providers.

In opening the forum, Queensland Disabilities Minister Curtis Pitt explained “Cairns has a good base on which to mprove its share of the accessible tourism market. The recently refurbished Cairns Domestic Airport goes beyond the required accessibility standards and we have a world class tennis  centre and athletics venues that can host all ability sporting  events. We already have good infrastructure in place … there  are over 90 wheelchair accessible rooms available for guests  with varying levels of disability, we have 22 maxi taxis and 55  accessible buses.”

Cairns has confidence in the number of accessible tourism  products offering visitors with a variety of access needs a broad  range of tourism experiences, an attitude best summed up by  Tourism Tropical North Queensland (TTNQ) Director Sales  and Marketing Brian Hennessy who explains “we have been  welcoming visitors from all over the world for many years. In that  time the industry has adjusted to a changing range of social,  cultural and economic drivers. I think that as a community  and as an industry we are very conscious of making Cairns  accessible for tourists, visitors and locals and will continue to  do so.”

Information presented at the Forum by Simon Darcy,
Associate Professor at the University of Technology Sydney Business School, defined Accessible Tourism (AT) – namely, “AT enables people with access requirements, including mobility, vision, hearing and cognitive dimensions of access, to function independently and with equity and dignity through the delivery of universally designed tourism products, services and environments. This definition adopts a whole of life approach where people through their lifespan benefit from accessible tourism provision and includes people with permanent and temporary disabilities, seniors, obese, families with young children and those working in safer and more socially sustainably designed environments” [adapted from 1, 2].  

Associate Professor Darcy presented recent economic data revealing that in Australia, the domestic AT market accounts for 11% of the market and is valued at $4.8 billion. Further, people with disabilities in Australia travel on domestic trips lasting between three and five days and travel in an average group size of three to four people [3]. However, destinations seeking to service the AT market are required to take a considered approach embracing credible information conveyed by empowering language which underpins a solid understanding of the accessibility of the operator’s premise.

It first requires a simple process of information provision comprising transport, accommodation, attractions/experiences and services which, if provided well, will result in an accessible travel chain allowing the traveller to make an informed decision to travel to the destination. This information provision doesn’t need to be costly, as people comprising the AT market tend to use their own social media and advocacy networks to share information such as disability and seniors organisations. One participant summarised the forum as “being really helpful to understanding of what my business needs to communicate to people with disabilities.”

So, does Cairns have the requisite accessible tourism destination infrastructure and accessible experiences on which to place the region with a competitive advantage in the market?

Unfortunately, access information available on the official tourism sites is no different to the norm and is of limited use. However, Cairns Regional Council’s web site does offer an extensive array of detailed access information that was strategically collected by Ian Chill, the Council’s Access Officer. Chill’s work has provided a sound knowledge base of the accessible infrastructure and experiences in the region. Yet, this information is embedded in the Council’s website and is not picked up by online search algorithms.

After the Forum, Associate Professor Darcy and I (we are both power wheelchair users) went on a familiarisation trip testing Far North Queensland attractions and locations for their ability to meet the access needs of travellers. The City of Cairns is set out on a rectangular grid of five blocks by five blocks facing the Trinity Inlet. Access around the city has been made easy with excellent crossovers above sometime deep gutters, tactile warning and direction tiles and audio traffic signals at most intersections. Many shops have a step up with the Council identifying this as an area for attention in a streetscape overhaul. Visitors and locals congregate at Cairns Esplanade.

Photo 1: Accessible water playground on Cairns Promenade (with permission Fiona Darcy © 2005)

Where mudflats were once revealed at low tide, there now exists a wonderful accessible and family friendly parkland with barbeques, a shaded beach and a swimming lagoon, with beach wheelchair access. The Esplanade leads to the upmarket wharf area with excellent restaurants, hotels, Casino and marina. While floating pontoons are a feature, the availability to access cruise vessels or even a fishing charter by roll-on/off access is limited.

Our next visit was to the award-winning Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure, located 40 kilometres north of Cairns. Our travelling party of three was able to engage Black & White Cabs to undertake the trip which involved about 45 minutes each way along the spectacular coastline. Upon arrival we noticed two well signed, dedicated wheelchair access parking spaces adjacent to a gently graded crossover to a level entry. The entry counter was not a high unwelcoming barrier but a reasonable counter of about 1150mm high where the Companion Card logo was clearly displayed. 

Photo 2: Croc Attack (with permission Hartleys © 2009)

At the entry the receptionist called the boat drivers to advise of our presence and advise two boats were necessary – one power wheelchair per boat. The entry and exit comprised a well designed and thought out cafeteria, toilets including unisex accessible facility, and gift shop offering plenty of circulation space. Visitors are presented with a fold out colour map which identifies all the activities, the highlight of which is a guided tour on Hartley’s Lagoon where visitors learn about the Estuarine Crocodile (but are kept well away from danger by a clear perspex barrier). Access onto the tour boats was via a fold out ramp, which can get steep when water levels are low. 

Photo 3: author Bruce Cameron boarding the accessible pontoon boat that provides an up close experience with the crocodiles through 50 ha of Billabong (with permission Fiona Darcy © 2011)

Following the cruise, a visit to the crocodile farm to see and handle, under strict supervision, crocodiles up to 1½ metres long is scary but does offer a tactile experience for visitors. Other hands on opportunities are available at the Snake Show and as photograph opportunities with crocs and snakes. Access around the site is via a paved pathway which meanders around and between billabongs and enclosures containing crocs, Cassowary’s, Koala’s and Wallabies.

The Great Barrier Reef is the main draw card for Cairns tourism. However, its disability access is limited. Those using power wheelchairs are best served by cruise operator Quicksilver, which sails from Port Douglas. Otherwise it’s best to discuss your access requirements directly with the operator and to check out the vessel at the wharf before booking.

Other Far North Queensland attractions that offer an accessible experience include Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural experience, Kuranda Scenic Railway and Sky Rail (where users need to check their needs with management). TTNQ’s Hennessey is pretty bullish about Cairns’ qualities, stating “for the most part, a wide range of experiences that make Tropical North Queensland unique are available for the disabled traveller. The challenge is to better promote these so that once a disabled traveller decides on our region as the destination for their holiday, that information is available for him or her to make an informed decision.”

Overall, Cairns’s tourism access rates highly although there are opportunities for improvement. Reliable credible tourist information from tourism sources is a relatively simple improvement while expansion on transport options would see more visitors enjoying the waterways around Cairns and venturing further afield such as Port Douglas and The Daintree Rainforest.

Perhaps Minister Pitt best sums up the ability of Cairns as a destination, “What Cairns can do better is advertise the fact that we have all this in place to host visitors with a disability“.

Bruce M Cameron is Principal and Publisher of  Easy Access Australia. He can be reached on 02 9634 1347,

Reprinted with permission Australasian Leisure Management, January/February 2012

Concluding Thoughts...

The value of regional workshops for accessible tourism can be measured in terms of both the stakeholders attendance at the workshop (60), engage and the media coverage on both the newspaper and radio[4-8]. The workshop was done in conjunction with a major government disability conference that also provided a visible presence for disability in the streets of Cairns. Of course, the real success will come with future visitation by the people with disability, their family, their friends and associated events that will use the infrastructure.



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