Cruising has long been considered one of the best ways to see the world for travelers with mobility challenges. However due to heightened port security it is increasingly more and more difficult to explore away from the ship. Case in point; on the last segment of our South America cruise we had a solo traveler who used a wheelchair. As he was alone. He said traveling by ship allowed him to see more without the inconveniences posed by foreign airports, hotels, restaurants, etc. He had been doing his home work and was anxious to see Ecuador, a life long dream. He asked me for advice about the ports; we talked about the challenge of sidewalks, cobble-stones, and deep gutters, common throughout South America. He was excited to hear that the beach in Manta and the new river-walk in Guayaquil were wheelchair accessible. He would take a taxi from the ship and explore independently. All systems were go, until we arrived in port.
In Manta, due to heightened port security taxis were no longer allowed on the pier. In addition, no one was allowed to walk to the port gate. If you were not on a pre-booked tour the only way you could leave the area was by a large shuttle bus provided by the ship which went to a mall and market or a small van that went between the ship and the port gate. He could not manage the steps of either the bus nor the van; even if someone from the ship were able to help him at the pier, no one would be available at the gate nor in town. He was stuck. He could not leave the ship.
The next day in Guayaquil, the situation was the same; no taxis allowed on the pier nor any wheel chair accessible buses. He came all this way and was forced to stay on the ship. Sadly, he disembarked in Lima without having realized his dream.
I was so sorry for his disappointment, it broke my heart. From that time on, I became more aware of how limiting these new port restrictions are on travelers with mobility challenges. Even though great strides are being made to make many popular areas universally accessible, getting to them has become next to impossible. So far, on our South American itinerary Lima was the only port that allowed taxis on the pier. It seems more and more prevalent that unless you are on a scheduled tour guests not able to manage a bus are confined to the ship. Many of the more remote areas not on the trod tourist track have very little in the way of equipment; local cars, buses and vans usually cannot accommodate a wheelchair, especially for someone traveling without the help of a companion.
So what is an independent traveler with physical limitations to do? I started thinking. With more mobility challenged travelers traveling companies around the world are realizing the need to offer universally accessible tours and services including wheelchair accessible vans and buses. When on these tours independent travelers can rely on the help of staff members and guides. For those wishing to explore on their own, ascertaining if the port allows taxis or private cars on the pier is next to impossible; information is unreliable and policy can change from day to day. However, were they available private cars and driver/guides are ideal. They can be arranged on-board either through the concierge or the tour desk; or before leaving home through a travel agent.
Countries competing for cruise business are happy to address concerns if it helps secure business. Ironically the increase in port security came as a response to some of those industry concerns. Security measures are meant to support the safety of the vessel and its guests; the fact that some of these restrictions now deny some guests access ashore needs to be addressed. Let your favorite cruise line and professional organizations like CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) know that this needs to be changed. As a traveler you never can tell when something as simple as a stair step will become an insurmountable obstacle. It is up to us all to voice our concern for making all aspects of the cruise experience universally accessible for all to enjoy!