Manu Heras: “Tourism is an opportunity for many people”

In the middle of the vineyards of La Vinyeta winery, Manu and his friend, both in wheelchairs, share a meal with cold meats, cheese and wine. Picture by Diego Espada.

When Manu was 18, he wanted to meet the grizzly bear and wolf of British Columbia, as well as the Australian kangaroo and koala. He imagined himself running after them with his rucksack slung across his back. But an accident interrupted his wanderlust. Momentarily.

The wheelchair hasn’t stopped him, because, he says: “Over the years I found the strength and resilience to find a way to do things on my own and, in the end, I’ve managed to do it differently.” Manu likes to explain his story to “encourage people to pursue their dreams, they don’t always have to go in a straight line.” The road is not always the way we imagined it to be.

Strengths of Girona’s tourism sector

In 2007 he decided to study Tourism “to change tourism from the inside and to make people perceive it as what it is: an opportunity for many people”. This summer he did an internship in the Tourism Department of the Baix Empordà Regional Council and was able to collaborate with the Baix Empordà Tourism Accessibility Plan and to learn about it. “Good work is being done, but it can’t stay just in the Baix Empordà. It must be exported to other areas. We cannot relax.”

Girona’s tourism sector has great strengths to exploit. For Manu, the best of these are the activities, i.e. active tourism, one of the most difficult things to achieve. “My motivation for travelling is to get to know the destination, to do sport, to do some activity that requires effort.” He highlights the adapted sports centre in La Molina, with its ski school and summer activities, such as handbike downhill; the Sailing School of the Club Náutic L’Escala; kayaking activities in Llançà with SKKayak; balloon flights in La Garrotxa with Vol de Coloms, and the adapted routes of the Girona Greenways.

On a sunny day, Manu steers a Club Nàutic L'Escala sailing boat. Picture by Diego Espada.
On a sunny day, Manu steers a Club Nàutic L’Escala sailing boat. Picture by Diego Espada.

“Disability has a negative connotation. In my case, too, but now for me it’s an opportunity to do the things I like to do. And it’s something that is part of me. I don’t like that people only think about what you can’t do. We don’t feel sorry for ourselves, we want our normality to have a place in society. Sometimes people need to see that we do things, and we don’t do more because it’s complicated.”

Manu compares the Costa Brava and the Girona Pyrenees with other booming destinations, such as Albania or Turkey. “We can’t compete on price, but we can put ourselves ahead by offering accessibility and sustainability, and by demonstrating that our tourism takes the environment into account and is not disposable,” a strategy that also contributes to achieving the SDGs of the United Nations 2030 Agenda.

“We must make more use of the resources we have”

He believes that more work needs to be done on transport, an essential issue for the tourism value chain. And, although the catering and accommodation sectors are getting up to speed, there is still work to be done in this regard.

The accessibility of websites also needs to be improved in two ways. On the one hand, by taking into account people with additional comprehension difficulties or people with sensory disabilities. On the other hand, by making the information on accessibility of the service or establishment visible in a quick and easy way. “Nowadays we are saturated with information. We must be able to find information on accessibility quickly, with an international pictogram on the front page, for example.”

At the Windoor Empuriabrava facilities, Manu and his friend listen to the instructions of two instructors. Picture by Diego Espada.
At the Windoor Empuriabrava facilities, Manu and his friend listen to the instructions of two instructors. Picture by Diego Espada.

“Sometimes the information is not given, because it is not fully accessible or it does not comply with the regulations, so we don’t want to take the risk. But we can say that it is practicable. We can say that there is an eight-centimetre step.” And it’s up to the individual to decide. “If your condition allows it, you don’t have to give it up.”

Normality against prejudice

Manu sees himself “as a mirror” for people who want to travel in a situation like his. He likes to get involved, but he asks for reciprocity, that is, we all have to do our part. “When a tourist agent wants to expand his business and make it more accessible, let’s do our bit and participate in that tourist activity. If not, it will cease to exist.” There is a cost, and if there is no tourism behind it, it is difficult for it to continue.

There is a lot of prejudice about disability. “When I had the accident, an imaginary wall was created between me and the rest of society. It is up to me and the rest of society to break it down. If I don’t do my part, if I don’t reach out to people, I can’t expect people to reach out to me. Sometimes people ask me: ‘What do I call you, a person in a wheelchair, with a disability, with functional diversity…?’ And I say to them: ‘Why don’t you simply call me by my name?’ Normality, that’s it.”