By: Lynn Burshtein
Hiking through Avdat National Park, the storied Nabatean-Byzantine city in southern Israel’s Negev desert, one is in awe of the remains of the forts that were, thousands of years ago, part of the important spice and incense route in the Middle East. Meandering through the marvels and unexpected surprises of this UNESCO-designated heritage site, this is a hiking experience like no other. And, amid the ruins, one notable feature is the presence of universal signage designating the trail as wheelchair accessible.
Certainly, many countries around the globe have prioritized accessibility in public spaces over the past few decades. But seeing an ancient hiking trail that has been retrofitted to accommodate those with disabilities shows the extent to which Israel has invested in providing access to those with varying abilities. But this is not too surprising. This small nation state (pop. 9 million) has been at the forefront of developments in the health and wellness sector in recent years, including with its important research on Covid-19. It has also seen numerous boutique hotels and health spas open as part of its steady growth in the tourism sector. Resorts such as the posh Beresheet hotel and the Six Senses Shaharut, both in the Negev desert, have increased Israel’s profile as a world-class destination catering to the wellness-minded traveler. These and other properties have made upgrades to ensure that their accommodations and amenities are accessible to those with a wide range of needs.
Designed by minimalist British architect John Pawson, The Jaffa, a Luxury Collection Hotel located in the old port city of Jaffa, is a breathtaking property offering a luxury experience including its state-of-the-art fitness centre and the L.RAPHAEL Spa. The hotel has created an accessible environment for those with both visible and invisible disabilities. Along with some suites that are wheelchair accessible, the hotel’s swimming pool has ramp access and a portable aquatic lift. There are also visual and hearing assistance systems, and the hotel welcomes guests with service animals and other therapy pets. The hotel says they pride themselves in treating all their guests in a manner to help ensure that they can independently get around.
Similar types of accommodation are provided at the Carlton, Tel Aviv on the Beach hotel . The five-star property provides convenient access to the beach where one can enjoy a multitude of outdoor activities. The hotel has an Accessibility Coordinator who can provide additional information and assistance for persons with various disabilities.
Meanwhile, the Daniel Dead Sea Hotel is adjacent to the renown saline lake that is widely touted for its health benefits and ability to help treat a range of ailments, from osteoarthritis to psoriasis. The property provides wheelchair access right into the water from the hotel’s private beach.
Of course, it is not enough for public places to simply meet the minimum standards of accessibility required by laws. It is also important that they provide a welcoming environment to ensure a sense of inclusion and wellbeing for all guests.
Born to Israeli parents, Toronto-based Maayan Ziv is the founder of AccessNow, a social enterprise app that shares and rates accessibility information about places around the world, such as hotels, restaurants and stores. Ziv is one of Canada’s “Top 40 under 40” recipients and a wheelchair user who has visited Israel dozens of times. She is careful to note that the meaning of “accessible” is constantly evolving and that supporting people with disabilities can mean different things – from providing access to those with physical mobility challenges, to hearing or visual disabilities, to providing environments that address light or other sensory sensitivities, for example.
Although a standard of perfection can be hard to achieve, Ziv believes Israel is moving towards an accessible pan-disability reality, making good progress in a relatively short period of time. She has had some positive experiences at various hotels in Israel, including at the Cinema Hotel based in the center of Tel Aviv action, where she said the hotel attendants went above and beyond in providing her with some temporary tools when her wheelchair broke. To her, the most important thing is for service providers to recognize the importance of accessibility as a customer experience, rather than an “accommodation” that customers need to negotiate over.
For the variety of experiences that Israel has to offer wellness-minded travellers, it seems that this land that is rooted in so much history is also forward-thinking with its advancements in health and wellness, accessibility and inclusion.
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Lynn Burshtein is a long-time contributor to Travel to Wellness. She visited Israel in November 2022 as a guest of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.