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Meet the graduate putting a spotlight on tourism’s need for more accessible travel

Posted on 27/04/2022 by

Paralympian Michael Johnson spoke with ITC graduate Sinead McDonnell about tourism’s need for more accessible travel.

The final subject of the New Zealand Diploma in Tourism and Travel at Level 5 is tourism & hospitality research and analysis. As part of this subject, students must choose a topic to research – ideally one they have a special interest in.

For Sinead McDonnell, the choice was simple. Her own family history inspired her to take a closer look into the accessibility of the New Zealand hotel industry, and found real gaps in what’s currently available – and what could encourage more lesser abled tourists to explore New Zealand.

Read on to find out more about Sinead’s inspiration, project, thoughts, and future goals! 

Why did you decide to focus on wheelchair tourism for your research project? 

When I was young my uncle in Ireland was really into cycling and he always followed the Tour De France. One year he decided he was going to participate in it, so had been training just about every day leading up to the Tour De France. One day when he was out training on the roads in Bray just out of Dublin, our hometown, he was T-boned by a car. This accident caused many injuries for my uncle and he was left with Multiple Sclerosis. Multiple Sclerosis is a disorder of the central nervous system which causes communication problems between your brain and the rest of your body. This left my uncle permanently in an electric wheelchair. 

What made me decide to do my research project on wheelchair tourism was that my uncle had never been to New Zealand let alone anywhere else in the world because it is far too difficult, especially being in an electric wheelchair. This is why I wanted to find the gap in wheelchair tourism in hotels within Auckland compared to Sydney, as Sydney is in the top 5 rated most accessible tourist destinations. 

What is the most surprising thing you’ve found during your project?

The most surprising thing I found during my research and data collection was that often hotels miss the simple things to an accessible room such as lower bathroom sinks, wet area showers, space around the bed to allow room for a turning circle. Although these are just the basics for an accessible room, these adjustments in a hotel room work for both wheelchair users and non-wheelchair users. So my biggest finding was: why can’t all hotel rooms be accessible if they work for both?

Another surprising thing I found during my research and data collection was the lack of accessible rooms in hotels and the inconsistency. During my research, I found hotels that had no accessible rooms, 2-3 accessible rooms or 7-10 accessible rooms. This showed the inconsistency in wheelchair tourism within hotels. My main question in regards to this issue was, what if a huge sports group of wheelchair users were wanting to stay at a specific hotel together? They would have to be split up due to hotels having not enough accessible rooms. 

What can you tell us about your interview with NZ Paralympian Michael Johnson? Will you be doing any work with him in the future?

I formed a great relationship and connection with Michael and he taught me a lot about himself as a wheelchair user to help contribute to my research project. I had actually been asked by him last week to be his assistant but due to my work commitments I am unable to. However, that doesn’t rule out any possible work with him in the future as it would be a great opportunity to work with such an inspiring New Zealander! 

What do you think can be done to make NZ more attractive and accessible for less abled tourists?

Personally I believe the marketing side of wheelchair tourism needs to be worked on. As we all know, Tourism New Zealand does a great job at marketing New Zealand as a tourist destination therefore New Zealand wouldn’t have a problem with marketing New Zealand as an accessible tourist destination. We have so many great organisations within New Zealand that can help market New Zealand in order to be a top accessible tourist destination such as Be Lab and the Accessibility Tick. 

I would also love to see a set standard for hotels, made by well-travelled wheelchair users in New Zealand. This would create more consistency in standards within New Zealand for accessible users and would also contribute hugely to New Zealand being a top accessible tourist destination. 

Where do you hope your career in tourism will take you?

I remember during level 5 diploma, and I’m sure Take and my classmates would agree with me, I had always said I wanted to be a hotel general manager.

However, I now work in a hotel and I absolutely love it but it has made me realise some things. I don’t want to cut myself short and focus on one part of the industry, that being hotels. Instead, I want my career in tourism to take me wherever it will lead me. At this stage, because I am still young, I am up for anything whether that be in adventure tourism, an office job in the industry, in hotels or other accommodation.

I want to keep my options open and try anything that comes my way but I do hope I can work my way up in the industry and hope one day I can be a manager and use my leadership skills that I gained while studying at ITC. 

Sinead during her travels in Ubud, Bali.

Make your mark on tourism and travel

We can imagine big things on the horizon for Sinead, and are excited to see where her career takes her when she graduates!

If you’d like to make your own mark on tourism and travel, a qualification from ITC is an excellent place to start. Get in touch today to find out more or enrol!

Campus Study – 0800 TOURISM (0800 868747) or

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