Amar Latif is a blind traveller, entrepreneur and TV personality who lost 95% of his sight by the age of 18 and later founded Traveleyes, the world’s first tour operator to specialise in holidays for blind and sighted travellers
What's your earliest travel memory?
Visiting Blackpool with my parents, brothers and sisters, which was our regular family holiday destination. All seven of us would pile into a little car (at least, it felt little) to drive down from Glasgow. It took ages to get there and when we got there it seemed like a different country – everyone had such strange accents that is sounded like a different language to us! I can still remember how exotic it all felt.
That was before I lost my sight though, so I often say that my first experience of travel was as a student when I went on exchange at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. It was the first time I’d been away from home by myself since losing my sight and I learned so much about myself, the world and the people in it – it was incredible!
When did you get the travel bug?
Canada showed me that I was able to get out there and experience the beauty in everything, even if I couldn’t ‘see’ it – but Nicaragua changed my life. Not not long after I founded Traveleyes the BBC asked me to take part in a new television programme, Beyond Boundaries, and to trek 220 miles across Nicaragua.
I crossed shark-infested lakes, cut through dense jungles and even climbed a 5,000–foot active volcano. I achieved something I honestly never thought possible – after all, the journey would have challenged anyone, never mind a blind man. When I returned home my passion for life and travel was greater than ever.
Whenever we meet with crisis in our lives there is a danger of falling into the mindset that things are (and always will be) worse than they were before. For me, the crisis was losing my sight, but my time in Canada and Nicaragua showed me that the world was still open to me.
What is it like travelling as a blind person?
People don’t realise that blind and vision-impaired (VI) travellers can often get more out of travel than their sighted counterparts. When you’re sighted you feel like ‘sightseeing’ should be taken literally. I lost my sight well before social media, but I like to call it the ‘Instagram effect’ – you get so distracted by the visuals that you end up glancing around, never delving below the surface. But us VI folk get to really engage with all the sounds, smells, tastes – everything that gets buried under the visual experience.
As a blind person my travel experience is much more three–dimensional. I’m also much more curious about the world and I can’t just go on Google and look up pictures of places – to learn about the world I have to get out there!
When did you get the idea for Traveleyes?
Travelling to Canada was the ultimate freedom for me; to be able to go somewhere, immerse myself in a new culture, try new things and embrace a new way of life. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered later in life that travel companies wouldn’t let me join their tours without a carer. It’s hard to explain how frustrating it is to be told you can’t do something that you love, simply because companies are ignorant to what it is to be blind. I had two choices: accept I would never travel how I wanted to, or make it happen myself. And that was the lightbulb moment. I set up Traveleyes in 2004 to enable blind people to experience travel with independence and 16 years later we’re still going strong!
Your tours pair blinded and sighted travellers, how does it work?
A common misconception is that only our blind travellers get something from our holidays but our sighted travellers often tell us that the experience is incomparable to any other. Our holidays work so differently that everyone gets something special from it. The relationship between blind and sighted traveller enriches a destination because the sighted person has to think about what they’re looking at. Rather than taking a quick picture they find themselves reflecting on how to describe a scene and in doing so get so much more from each place.
How do you describe a scene to someone who has never seen before?
It’s quite rare for a blind person to be 100% blind and/or have never experienced any kind of sight so usually there is something to build from. All our tours have tactile and sensory elements which help VI people build a vivid mental image of a place. We are fortunate that many museums and tours give us special access to objects that the public normally can’t touch. When accompanied with a sighted person’s description, an image starts to build. Whether it’s smelling the salts used at a Roman Baths or tasting freshly picked herbs from a garden, there’s always a way to bring a destination to life without sight.
What do Traveleyes look for in a destination?
There’s the logistical side – for instance, on walking holidays we ensure there is no scrambling and that routes are wide enough for side–by–side walking. We also have to look beyond what a place is known for to what it offers to make a truly immersive trip.
Ecuador and Galapagos are famous for their wildlife, which feature in our itinerary, but can’t be our ‘selling point’ because it’s a visual thing. We speak to our local contacts and work out what else the area offers for a more rounded trip – chocolate making, a percussion workshop, and zip-lining through a rainforest. Other examples include a samba and carnival workshop in Brazil and tandem cycling from Bangkok to Phuket. All destinations can be brought to life through elements other than just sight, it’s just about being open to new ways.
Have you ever had a travel disaster?
While in Canada I needed to pay for my health insurance in cash. When I got to the administration office I got chatting to a woman and like all the Canadians I’d met she seemed lovely. She asked all sorts of questions and I got the impression that she was genuinely concerned about me. I was really touched so when I said I had somewhere else to be and she offered to deposit my money I accepted and went on my merry way.
Obviously, she kept the money, but I didn’t realise until the day I walked into a door and had to get stitches. I was surprised to be handed a bill and when I told them about the nice lady who’d set up the insurance for me I heard an uneasy cough before they told me that she must have seen me coming. I only wish I could have said the same!
Is there anywhere which has surprised you?
The level of accessibility you encounter in various countries around the world can be surprising. Dubai is one of the wealthiest places in the world but some of the lifts are so high-tech, with touch-screen controls, that they’re useless to blind people. But in some of the furthest-flung parts of Africa you not only get lifts that still have buttons, but ones labelled in braille! There are other things that aren’t perfect there, but it goes to show that it’s not just about throwing money and technology at things – sometimes it’s about having the right mindset.
What's your favourite place to holiday?
I absolutely love Cuba. There’s so much about it that’s incredible for a blind person – the music, the dancing, the warmth of the sun, the taste of a fresh pineapple – I can’t get enough of it!
It also gives me a way into the past. Most people get to see photographs or paintings of what things looked like before now but that’s not very accessible to me. In Cuba everything is frozen in time so I can really get my hands on things and get a proper sense of the history.
Where would you like to go next?
Cornwall! The thing about travelling the world is that you don’t get to experience much of home! There’s actually quite a few places in the UK that I’ve never been to, but I love the sun, so Cornwall is next on my list.
This is a feature from Issue 3 of Charitable Traveller. Click to read more from this issue.