Disabled tourists to find 'unfriendly' hotels

As Israel readies for big summer for tourism, activists express anger over lack of facilities.

wheelchair 88 (photo credit: )
wheelchair 88
(photo credit: )
As Israel braces itself for what the Tourism Ministry predicts will be the biggest summer for tourism in the state's 60-year history, activists for disabled rights are expressing anger over the lack of hotel facilities for those with special needs. "There is such apathy here," Miami resident and regular visitor to Israel Michael Zwebner told The Jerusalem Post this week. "It's really surprising that the laws [on disabled access] are not taken seriously and there is no enforcement as such." Zwebner, a former operator of charter flights to Israel who had polio as a child, has successfully pushed a range of travel and tourism companies in the US to improve services for the wheelchair-bound and those who suffer from other disabilities. When he made plans to visit his elderly parents in Netanya this Pessah, Zwebner said, it was not possible to find a hotel in the town with wheelchair accessible rooms and other features for the disabled such as a roll-in shower and wheelchair-height beds, tables and sinks. "It is very upsetting that I can't find a hotel in Netanya to accommodate me," he told the Post, adding that he had already convinced two Israeli hotels to adapt several rooms for disabled guests. Yuval Wagner, founder and director of Access Israel, a non profit group that advocates for disabled rights, said he was fully aware of the problem and that new legislation requiring that all Israeli hotels provide adequate facilities for the disabled could not be implemented, as it was still being amended. "The problem is that hotels are being upgraded now [in time for the expected rise in tourism this year], but it will still be another year or two before all the amendments to the new law have been approved," he said. Meanwhile, hotels are only obliged to comply with a building code from 1995, which at best is ambiguous on the specifics of making buildings disabled-friendly. "The problem is that many of the hotels in Israel are very old," said Shmuel Zurel, director-general of the Israel Hotels Association. He said the current building code did not call for hotels built before 1995 to install rooms suitable for those with special needs. "[At present], the law says that hotels built after 1995 must have a number of rooms for the disabled, but many of those built before 1995 simply cannot make these changes," said Zurel, giving as an example elevators that were not wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. At least two-thirds of Israel's 370 hotels were built before 1995. "There will be some radical changes after the new law finally goes through, but it will still differentiate between older and newer buildings," he said, adding that the Hotels Association estimated that renovations to prepare for disabled or elderly guests could cost each hotel in excess of NIS 1 million. "For some it will be less and for others more," he said. Zurel also said that one of the industry's main concerns was that there was not enough demand here for disabled-friendly hotel rooms to make the changes financially worthwhile. "We checked out the demand for these types of rooms and saw that requests are very low," he said. "It's difficult for hotels to rent out such rooms to a person who doesn't have disabilities." However, Elaine Pomerantz from Yad Sarah's tourist service, which provides disabled travelers with essential medical equipment while in Israel, said that in an average year her department served roughly 200 customers. She said it was hard to believe that demand for hotel rooms among the disabled was so low. "If we had 200 people last year who needed equipment, then it's likely there is four times that number of people with disabilities visiting," she said. Zurel responded that not all tourists stayed in hotels. Many, he said, stayed with relatives or made private apartments. "The hotel industry in Israel still doesn't realize the potential of tourism for the disabled and the elderly," said Wagner, a wheelchair-bound IDF veteran. "Awareness and understanding here is very poor, and there's really no comparison between what happens here and the high level of accessibility to rooms abroad." According to Zwebner, "Every hotel in the US can accommodate disabled guests." "I think it's time for us [disabled people] to consider legal action," he continued, adding that Israel was required to ensure that people with disabilities enjoyed all the rights and responsibilities of others in society, since becoming party to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities just over a year ago. The Tourism Ministry said it was fully committed to improving services for the disabled, at various tourist sites as well as in hotels, but that until amendments to the new law were approved by a special construction and housing committee, such requirements could not be implemented. A spokeswoman for Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog, who previously headed the Tourism Ministry, said he planned to pressure the Justice Ministry-run Commission for Equal Rights of People with Disabilities to expedite the new laws, and to press the tourism industry to address the needs of both the local disabled population (roughly 1.36 million people) and disabled visitors. Shmuel Haimovitch, acting director of the commission, told the Post the problem of accessibility for the disabled in hotels and tourist spots was well known and that the commission was dealing with the issue ahead of the summer's expected rise in visitors.