By Zaher Bitar, Staff Reporter, Gulf News

A group of tourists standing in front of the main fountain at Dubai Mall is not something unusual, but 182 special needs tourists communicating only in sign language was enough to draw the attention of the other shoppers around them.

    * Into its 16th year, the DSF is focusing on special needs tourists as part of its ‘One world, one family’ theme.     * Image Credit: Supplied
* Into its 16th year, the DSF is focusing on special needs tourists as part of its ‘One world, one family’ theme. * Image Credit: Supplied

The members of the “Deaf World Travel Group” said they had come to Dubai for the shopping festival. They had traveled from the UK on the ship Brilliance of the Seas as part of a one-week cruise. Most of them were couples between 50 and 80 years old.

“I wanted to go somewhere special to celebrate Deaf World Travel’s 20th anniversary and I chose Dubai at a time of a special event [the Dubai Shopping Festival] because it’s a different culture, has amazing sea resorts and the tallest building in the world,” said Joliet, one of the special needs tourists who was in Dubai with a tour party last week.

She spoke in sign language via a translator. She asked that her last name be withheld.

Despite her hearing disability and the fact that she cannot communicate except through sign language, Joliet said she was at ease with the dedicated interpreters and tourist guides, provided by the organizers of the DSF.

“The street decorations and lighting, the carnivals and the colours were more than enough – even for the disabled – to feel the joy and the entertainment value [of] the DSF,” Joliet said.

Into its 16th year, the DSF is focusing on special needs tourists as part of its ‘One world, one family’ theme. The group said facilities in Dubai were on par with those in the West in accommodating their needs, which helped them avoid any awkwardness during their stay.

“We felt Dubai is a place where all peoples regardless of their backgrounds, nationality and colour can co-exist peacefully,” said Joliet. “No one looked at us in a different way or as complete strangers. The atmosphere was friendly and people were helpful.”

And what enduring image would she take back home?

“Although I can’t hear the music played by the Dubai Fountain, I could feel the vibration of the water which put me in a different frame of mind, one full of happiness and hope,” she said.

Another special needs tourist, K. A. said he has never been to the Arab world before. “I chose Dubai on behalf of the group because it has some interesting places to see, which I found out about from the Internet and newspapers,” the 64-year old said. “Dubai has a good reputation worldwide and the promotions as well as the entertainment provided by DSF encouraged us to come to Dubai during this event.

“I have [seen] on TV the tallest building in Dubai, but nothing can describe the feeling when you [are] under the giant Burj Khalifa or when you see the whole of Dubai from the top,” he added. “Dubai has many beautiful places and buildings, but Burj Khalifa was the one I wanted to see.”

While he had seen many of the attractions of Dubai — the Palm, the marinas, Ski Dubai, shops, water displays, cafes, the beaches and sand dunes — he did not get to a place of special interest to him. “I would have liked to have visited a deaf centre in Dubai but we did not have the time,” he said.

According to K. A., while he likes the cultural aspects of DSF, he would also like to taste the traditional cuisine of the UAE.

Market leader

Although special needs tourism is grossly under-developed in many destinations, Dubai is trying to become a market leader through a series of initiatives, according to a senior official at the emirate’s Tourism and Commerce Marketing entity. “Dubai’s hotels, travel agencies, airlines, airports, malls and different modes of public transport are increasingly gearing themselves to become disabled-friendly for moral, ethical as well as financial reasons,” said Abdullah bin Suwaidan, DTCM’s deputy director of overseas promotions.

“The service and facilities Dubai offers have made it an accessible destination to special needs visitors. DTCM has developed a series of measures and upgraded its services to welcome more special needs tourists into the emirate.”

Mounir Ali Al Shami, one of the tour guides, told Gulf News that he has accompanied special needs tourists in Dubai, but this group was among the biggest.

“They did enjoy the tour and the sightseeing in Dubai, and they had such great harmony,” Al Shami said. “Special needs people are very sensitive and their eyes and looks revealed the good impression they had about Dubai. They bought a lot of souvenirs representing the icons of Dubai.”

Richard Roberts, tour manager at Travelsphere Holidays, said: “It would be true to say that the Deaf World Travel Group felt very much at home in Dubai. In spite of the handicap of not being able to hear, a warm smile and a friendly approach can speak a thousand words. The guests were made to feel [welcome] and treated as individuals.”

From the large malls to small traders, there was an emphasis on service.

“On talking to guests I was delighted to find that when it came to that ‘special purchase’ – such as gold or jewelry items – traders had both the time and patience to explain in detail all the finer points of the items concerned, in spite of the very obvious difficulty in relating the information,” Roberts said.

He added: “More importantly, [they] informed me that [Dubai] really was a world away from the normal and greatly added to their experience within the region.”

Initiative: Facilities in focus

The Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing launched the first edition of a brochure about Dubai’s facilities for special needs tourists, and well as the wheelchair-bound and physically challenged last year.

It lists the facilities available at Dubai International Airport, car and other transport services, hotels, heritage sites, tours, cinemas, parks and shopping centres among others. Dubai airport, for example, provides 800 wheelchairs to those in need, almost every day.

The brochure, also available electronically on the DTCM website, has tips for the physically challenged on obtaining a driving licence, equipment they might need and hospital and medical facilities.

Laila Suhail, CEO of Dubai Events and Promotions Establishment and organiser of the Dubai Shopping Festival, said the government agency always takes into consideration the special needs community wherever possible while organising major events.

“This comes as part of our core values and mission to spread festivities during our event across all layers of the community, thus reflecting our long-lasting theme of DSF: ‘One World, One Family, One Festival’.”

In past editions, several initiatives geared towards special needs visitors were devised, including a charity concert featuring the singer Majida Al Roumi for the benefit of the Dubai Autism Centre in 2007.

“We also managed to invite more than 1,500 special needs individuals from various centres in Dubai to attend the famous Cirque Du Soleil, one of DSF 2007’s main events,” said Suhail.

DSF 2008 organised a boat trip along Dubai Creek for 500 special needs children and their parents. “And in 2009 we had a more interactive approach by organising a Buchi event in collaboration with the UAE Down Syndrome Association,” Suhail said. (Buchi is a special game for those affected with Down Syndrome and held at the Dubai Creek Park.) “During this year’s edition of DSF we concluded the Thunder Parade, which is a fantastic event that witnessed participation of more than 1,100 bikers from all over the world in support of the Dubai Autism Centre.

“DEPE makes sure that most events have arrangements for special needs individuals at the venues, including parking and seating and moving areas, in addition to free admission with a companion to our ticketed events, whenever it’s possible.

“Despite not having a specific evaluation of the special needs tourism as an industry in terms of figures and magnitude, we do know for a fact that Dubai as a city is highly user-friendly for these visitors.”