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Is Germany accessible for travelers with disabilities?

November 6, 2023

It's not easy for vacationers with disabilities to travel around Germany. Can the required infrastructure be improved?

Two tourists in wheelchairs are seen in Berlin
It can be a difficult journey for tourists in wheelchairsImage: Andi Weiland

Traveling in Germany when disabled is not easy. Bernhard Endres, a wheelchair user, knows this from his own experience. "When I plan a vacation, I have to search a long time until I find something suitable," he says.

Often, he says, it's difficult to find information about structural barriers in a hotel or vacation home, for example. Many tell him their establishments are barrier-free, though once he arrives it often turns out not to be true at all. The wheelchair may not fit in the bathroom or there may be a step somewhere.

Accessibility must be improved

Endres is a member of the tourism specialist team of the German National Association of Self-Help for the Physically Disabled and is therefore very knowledgeable about accessibility issues within Germany's tourism industry.

"The situation is not ideal and that's putting it nicely," Endres tells DW. Jonas Fischer, accessibility officer at the association Barrierefreiheit beim Sozialverband (VdK), an association that promotes accessability, agrees. "We're a long way from having nationwide accessible tourism infrastructure in Germany." This results in major restrictions for people with disabilities who want to travel around the country.

The fact that more considerations are made for people with mobility related impairments, as opposed to other types of disabilities, is due to the high costs involved in adapting a space, says Fischer. Fischer also points out that many museums, amusement parks and other facilities do not follow the two-senses principle, which increases accessibility in that information should be conveyed and perceivable via at least two senses (for example, visual and auditory). The VdK, which advocates for accessibility, believes both public and private facilities should be required to be accessible. In the US, this has long been the case.

Two men with impaired vision touch a tactile model of Frankfurt's Historical Museum
Tactile models of the surroundings can help the blind and people with impaired vision find their bearingsImage: Andi Weiland

Vacation planning a major challenge

One of the biggest hurdles for travelers with disabilities is the lack of reliable information about how accessible a travel destination is, which makes it challenging to plan a vacation. In an attempt to remedy this situation, Germany introduced a "Tourism for All" labeling system for travel options in 2011. It was developed with the help of Germany's ministry of economic affairs and energy.

Any organization or institution listed in the "Tourism for All" database has been verified by independent investigators and certified. On the website, which is also available in English, one can view tourism-related offers which offer different levels of accessibility. Although not all listings are entirely barrier-free, they have all undergone a strict certification procedure.

What is it like to live with a disability?

By using the database, one can learn, for example, that the pavement around the Brandenburg Gate has a slope of 1% at a certain point, and that guided tours for blind or visually impaired people are available at Naumburg Cathedral. One can also find, for example, the exact dimensions of the public bathroom in the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. The site also includes detailed information on hotels, campsites, restaurants, shops, beaches and more.

More information needed

But there's a catch. The database currently includes just 2,828 facilities, locations and businesses in Germany. According to an estimate by the Federal Association of the German Tourism Industry, the total number of tourism-relevant properties in Germany is somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000. The lack of entries could have something to do with the fact that certification costs a fee and must be renewed every three years.

Nuremberg youth hostel is seen from the outside
Reaching the Nuremberg youth hostel from the city center can be a problem for wheelchair usersImage: Norbert Probst/imageBROKER/picture alliance

Travelers with disabilities in Germany, therefore, have few choices but to take matters into their own hands and search for accessibility information related to a sight or tourist accommodation on their own. Some popular locations do provide information, like Cologne Cathedral or Neuschwanstein castle, for example. Both list the most important information on their respective websites, although not in as much detail as on the "Tourism for All" database.

The German National Tourist Board, which markets Germany as a destination internationally, also stresses the importance of making accessibility related offerings more visible. They aim to position Germany as an inclusive destination that enables all people to actively participate in tourism. The German Hotel and Restaurant Association (DEHOGA) agrees.

"It is part of the DNA of hoteliers and restaurateurs to be the best possible hosts for all guests. Of course, this also applies to guests with disabilities," says Sandra Warden, managing director at DEHOGA.

"The importance of accessibility has therefore grown in recent years and is being considered when constructing new buildings," says Warden. Yet it can be much more complicated to make existing buildings accessible due to cost-related factors. For example, wheelchair-accessible rooms require significantly more space than conventional rooms.

A wheelchair user is seen at an airport
Individuals with disabilities or reduced mobility are entitled to free assistance at all EU airportsImage: Andrey Popov/PantherMedia/picture alliance

German train stations have a long way to go

At least at German airports, passengers with disabilities know what to expect. According to EU law, there is a right to free assistance during check-in, boarding and disembarkation. Most of Germany's major train stations also offer assistance to travelers with disabilities. However, according to the VdK, in 2020 the platforms of around 22% of Germany's 5,400 train stations were still not accessible to those with disabilities.

This article was originally published in German.

Jonas Martiny -  Travel Online-Autor
Jonas Martiny Reporter, correspondent