Twenty years ago, travel agent Joan Diamond was thinking of abandoning her profession. On a whim, she went to a meeting about travel services for the physically challenged.
"It was then a very small market," she recalled recently. But it sparked Diamond's interest enough that she decided to test the waters. Diamond now has 19 years of experience catering to wheelchair travelers and no regrets about her specialization. Over the last five years, business has increased by more than 200%, said Diamond, co-owner of Nautilus Tours & Cruises Ltd. in Woodland Hills, Calif.
Not that she doesn't have plenty of competition. Like Diamond, many travel agents and entrepreneurs have discovered this robust market. Profits aren't the only draw. Most industry professionals who cater to wheelchair travelers say the feeling of accomplishment when they help mobility-impaired travelers see the world is great. Some who specialize in the field are wheelchair users themselves; others have close family or friends who are.
Here is a sampling of travel agencies, organizations and publications that cater to wheelchair users:
* Nautilus Tours & Cruises Ltd., Woodland Hills ( 591-3159), books cruises and independent travel. Travelers in wheelchairs, said Diamond, "want to do more on their own. It used to be they were interested in tours. Now they want more independent travel." * Travel Turtle Tours ( 453-9195) is run by Carroll Driscoll, an amputee who was a wheelchair user before she was fitted with an artificial limb. Based in Danbury, Conn., the company schedules tours to Alaska, New York City, Cape Cod, Mass., Prague in the Czech Republic, Australia and Italy, among other locales. "We won't market a trip until we've checked it out," Driscoll said, knowing from experience that there's nothing worse than being told a destination is wheelchair-accessible and finding out it is not.
* Neverland Adventures ( 717-8226) is a Cincinnati-based business founded in 1994 by Andrew Huesing, a wheelchair user. "Our biggest [tour] is Australia," said Erin Gullage, a Neverland Adventures employee who is also a wheelchair user.
* Tahoe Adaptive Ski School ( 581-4161) offers 2 1/2-hour private lessons by reservation, seven days a week during ski season, said Haakon Lang-Ree, assistant director. Any level of skier is welcome. If someone is very athletic, Lang-Ree said, they'll probably be skiing fairly well after a day or two. The private lesson fee, $50 on the weekend and $40 on weekdays, includes a beginner's lift ticket and all adaptive equipment including an adaptive seat equipped with an alpine ski. * California Adaptive Ski School ( 585-2519, Ext. 269) offers group or individual lessons, half a day or full, for wheelchair skiers and other mobility impaired persons. Rates vary.
* Kenai King Drifters ( 653-7648) offers wheelchair travelers fishing expeditions on the Kasil and Kenai rivers and to other Alaskan locales, said Vicky Musgrave, who helps to run the Kasilof, Alaska-based service. One-day fees range from $135 to $175 and include adaptive fishing equipment, boat, gear and guide.
* Access-Able Travel Source is an information service founded by Carol and Bill Randall that went online in February 1996 (http://www.access-able.com). Their Web site includes updated information on accessible accommodations, transportation and cruise ships and a list of travel agents by disability specialty. The Web site also links to other information on disability magazines, books, newsletters and organizations. "In the first month, we got 2,000 requests for information," Randall said. "Now, we get 30,000 requests a month." Their goal is to serve as a clearinghouse. "There's a lot of information out there," Carol Randall said, "but it's hard to find."
* Open World Magazine, a quarterly publication of the Society for the Advancement of Travel for the Handicapped (SATH), "includes three or four pieces written by travelers with disabilities traveling to domestic and international locations," said Laurel Van Horn, editor. Subscriptions--$13 a year or $24 for two years--may be obtained by writing SATH at 347 Fifth Ave., Suite 610, New York, NY 10016. Membership in SATH is $45 per year and includes use of a service that will research a location for accessibility.
* Access to Travel magazine is a quarterly publication "serving travelers with disabilities and their families and friends," as the masthead reads. Upcoming issues will carry articles on cruising and spring in the Rockies, according to publisher Will DeRuve. Theme parks were covered earlier this year. Subscriptions are $16 a year and may be obtained by sending a check payable to Access to Travel Magazine, P.O. Box 43, 29 Bartlett Lane, Delmar, NY, 12054-1105.
The Healthy Traveler appears the second and fourth week of every month.