In Algeria, Djamila Touabet is making tourism accessible for people with disabilities
The COVID-19 pandemic has redefined what it means to go on holiday. With travel bans or imposed quarantines, many countries are now appealing to domestic residents, with staycations becoming a holiday trend. And Algeria is no different: with closed borders since the end of March 2020, more and more Algerians are holidaying in their own country.
In Sétif, one of the country’s biggest cities, Djamila Touabet launched Handitour, a travel agency open to all but especially aimed at people with disabilities. Through their app, people can find hotels with accessible rooms according to their needs, destination and budget.
Touabet, who has a motor disability after contracting polio, explains how difficult it is to travel in Algeria due to the lack of accessibility in transportation, facilities and accomodation. “Only one room in fifty is accessible in four and five star hotels. Three or two star hotels don’t have this obligation. And there is a lack of information and awareness about accessible hotels, which inspired me to create Handitour. I want to help as many people with disabilities as possible to have access to holidays, leisure and tourism.”
Tourism in Algeria
Algeria is home to natural, cultural, and historic endowments that make it the perfect tourism destination. But it’s only in the recent years that the government has placed tourism at the centre of its development plans. Like other oil-exporting countries across the MENA region, Algeria has been looking to shift towards a more diversified economic model to sustain higher economic growth rates and job creation, and has turned to the tourist industry.
Since 2015, the country has experienced a boom in hotel construction. Thirteen international chains had begun hotel projects in Algeria by the end of the year, most of them five star properties such as Sheraton, Mercure and Marriott aiming for high-end local and international business clients. And the number of hotels keeps growing, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Touabet has spent the last couple of years seeking out hotels with accessible rooms. In exchange for being listed with Handitour, hotels pay a percentage for each booking done through the app. Part of the money raised will enable people with disabilities and limited financial revenue to go on holiday. “If we want to create a tourism that is accessible,” Touabet explains, “we must ensure that people with disabilities not only have physical access, but also financial means.”
For Touabet, it is crucial that people with disabilities become financially independent, and she’s developing a side project that has this aim.
“We are planning to manufacture beach and ski equipment made by and for people with motor disabilities that will be available for rent in tourist resorts. It’s through such micro-projects that we can include people with disabilities in the labour force.”
It’s not the first project of this kind that Touabet has worked on. As the president of the Union for People with Motor Disabilities in Sétif, an organisation that advances the economic empowerment of people with disabilities, Touabet has developed an online training programme to teach Arabic, English, French and IT skills to combat illiteracy and provide lifelong learning opportunities.
She has also helped create call centres that recruit people who have motor disabilities, with the aim of having these in all the big cities of Algeria.
“People with disabilities can not rely on the government, or organisations, or their family or volunteering,” she says. “I advocate for their right to knowledge and their right to work so they can be independent. And the solution is to find projects and jobs that will enable them to work and become economically autonomous. Because whatever the amount of benefits they can get, it will never be enough to build a good life.”
Currently, Touabet is looking to diversify Handitour’s offer. “Besides five star hotels, we are thinking of listing rental homes and cottages because many people with disabilities need to travel with caregivers or with their families, and need many rooms, which can become expensive.”
She also wants to develop ecotourism, and last October she joined the International Ecotourism Society, a non-profit association committed to promote sustainable tourism, becoming their exclusive representative for Algeria.
“My greatest hope,” she tells us, “is to make Handitour a success not only in Algeria but throughout the Arab world.”