Amar Latif is a blind traveller, entrepreneur and TV personality who lost 95 per cent of his sight at the age of 18. In 2004, Amar founded Traveleyes, a commercial tour operator specialising in holidays for visually impaired and sighted travellers. A shorter version of this interview appears in the May 2019 print edition of Business Traveller.
What attracted you to travel?
I lost my sight when I was 18, so I knew there was a world out there worth seeing and I wasn’t going to let blindness stop me from exploring. For my third year of university, I travelled to Canada to finish off my studies. After this, I was hooked!
I wanted to travel more but was turned down from most mainstream group holiday providers. I wasn’t going to let this stop me. If there’s something missing in this world, you either do without or build it yourself, and so I started Traveleyes. I have now been to over 100 different countries and have experienced many different cultures.
What is the biggest challenge in travelling for partially-sighted and blind people?
Many people who develop a vision impairment think jetting off on holiday is a thing of the past. Airports, hotels and travelling in an unfamiliar place can be a challenge at the best of times. Traveleyes restores a higher level of independence to blind and visually impaired (VI) travellers, making the world more accessible. In fact, many of our blind travellers go on holiday more now than when they had sight!
Has the travel industry changed over time?
Absolutely. The world is a lot smaller – you can now get a direct flight from London to Australia, making destinations easier to get to. We now go to places we would not have considered 20 years ago, like Mongolia and Uzbekistan. I also think the accessibility and assistance in airports and train stations has improved dramatically, allowing VI travellers to travel more independently.
How could international airports improve?
More often that not, if you book airport assistance, they are waiting with a wheelchair when you get off the plane. I, like a lot of VI travellers, don’t need a wheelchair and find it very uncomfortable using one when it’s unnecessary. The system for booking airport assistance is flawed and lumps all disabilities into one category.
What about in-flight service?
Where all airlines really let themselves down is the lack of accessibility on their entertainment systems. Almost all are touch screen but with no screen reader built in, so I can’t navigate the menu. The call button is also often on the entertainment screen which, again, isn’t accessible. They need to move forward and build a screen reader into their entertainment systems.
The service crew, however, are always very helpful. They bring around the safety equipment and show you, one to one, how it works. They even offer you a braille version of the emergency instructions card.
Has technology made travel easier?
Technology is great and can be a liberator for blind people. Apple are a great case in point as they build accessibility and inclusivity into the heart of everything they do, ensuring their products work whether you are blind or sighted. Smartphones and iPads have speech technology built into them, so it’s easy for companies to have their information accessible to blind people. Using a voiceover allows me to access a world of travel knowledge and even helps me to take the odd selfie!
There has, however, been no consideration given to blind users when designing some travel apps, which is a real shame as the technology is already there. I am happy to speak to companies to help make the world a more accessible place.
Is there a particular destination most accessible for blind people?
With the support of our sighted guides, each destination we travel to becomes more accessible. We also speak to the locals, explain how we operate, and they are always so willing to help. When Traveleyes went camping in Mongolia, for example, there were no en-suite bathrooms, no guiding handrails, no 24-hour reception to call for assistance, no paving for VI people to use their canes to navigate. So we made it accessible – we tied ropes from the Ger Tents to the shower block, so that our VI travellers could independently find their way to the washroom.
How do you pick destinations for the tours?
We like to pick a mix of off-the-beaten-track destinations, European city breaks, activity trips, UK breaks, and sun, sea and sand holidays. The tours on each trip are handpicked and tailor-made to be as tactile and sensory as possible. It takes a lot of communication from our team with local bodies in order to make it work.
What is the motivation for sighted travellers to join your tours?
Travelling with a VI traveller opens the world up in such a way you wouldn’t believe. For me to experience the world, I have to get up close and personal with it. I encourage my sighted guide to do the same – touch things they normally wouldn’t, listen out for things they might usually miss and chat to more people.
The companionship and camaraderie on Traveleyes adventures are second to none. You can see how the relationship between a sighted and VI traveller works on the BBC Two programme “Travelling Blind”, where I was guided around Turkey by comedian Sara Pascoe.