Catching up with Amar Latif, the blind adventurer making the world more inclusive

This International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we speak to TV personality Amar Latif about his incredible life mission to make travel more accessible for

Jessica Reid
03 December 2023

Amar Latif lost 95% of his vision by the time he was 18 years old, due to an incurable eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa. But he’s not let blindness limit how he lives his life. Discovering a passion for travel from a young age, Amar struggled to find any tour operator to accommodate him as a blind traveller. So in 2004, he founded Traveleyes, a travel company bringing visually impaired and sighted travellers together to explore the world. Twenty years later, he’s getting ready to relaunch the company with new adventures in collaboration with walking specialist, HF Holidays.

Amar’s success doesn’t stop with his one-of-a-kind company. He’s presented and starred in a number of TV travel shows, including BBC’s Pilgrimage, Travelling Blind and River Walks, and has also recently received OBE honours for his inspiring work.

To mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities, digital editor Jessica Reid catches up with Amar to learn about the relaunch of Traveleyes and his new position as president of British walking charity Ramblers. They also discuss why accessible travel definitely isn’t one size fits all, and how challenging preconceptions has made Amar the person he is today.

Hi Amar, thanks for chatting with me today. It’s been a while since you last caught up with Wanderlust. So, let’s start with your latest adventures.

I’ve done several television adventures in the last few years. I did a show called Pilgrimage on BBC Two where I went on a tour with six other celebrities exploring our faiths. Some people were Christian and some people were Muslim. That was an amazing experience and I met some remarkable people like Fatima Whitbread, Edwina Currie, Dom Joly and Adrian Chiles.

I’ve also climbed Kilimanjaro in the past few months. I climbed it in August for a charity called Rafiki Thabo which helps disadvantaged children in East Africa get education. It was tough, as I didn’t have much time to train for it. It took us six days to get to the top, and I actually fell in love with a flower on that mountain called a protea. It’s round, it’s got these yellow, soft spikes and you can put your palm of your hand on it. It just feels so beautiful. So that’s halfway up Kilimanjaro, and you can only find it there and in South Africa.

I’ve learnt your company Traveleyes is returning next year. But before you tell me more about its developments, it would be great to have an overview of how it works.

I own a company called Traveleyes, and we take groups of visually impaired – or VIPs, as they like to be known – and fully sighted travellers all over the world. Most people don’t know each other, and that’s part of the fun, because each day we swap partners, and a sighted traveller will be paired with a different VIP. In return for guiding and describing the views, our sighted guests travel for up to 50% reduction in price of the trip.

Amar Latif is a pioneering blind traveller (Amar Latif)

CBeebies presenter and fellow trekker, Maddie Moate, describes the Zebra Rock to Amar (Theo Blossom)

On Traveleyes’ website it says its trips are returning in spring next year. I’m guessing it was the pandemic that put a halt to operations?

Yes. So after the pandemic, we were trying to figure out the best way to restart. Because we mix up blind and sighted travellers, this was obviously against COVID rules and we would have been considered super-spreaders. We were one of the last companies that could operate.

But I always believe that whenever you experience any kind of challenge or adversity in life, if you can have a positive mindset, not only do you overcome your challenge or obstacle, but you can create something even more beautiful. I was going to relaunch Traveleyes last year, and I just thought, I want to explore different ways of doing things. I wanted to rebuild it to be not exactly like it used to be, but even bigger and better. I want to offer even more choice and I want to reach out to even more people. I want Traveleyes to continue long into the future, because I’m so passionate about blind and visually impaired people seeing the world.

So that’s why we are returning in collaboration with HF Holidays, who are going to power our itineraries. I’m still at the helm – directing, designing, and ensuring things are great for my VIPs and sighted travellers as we open up more of the world to even more people.

So you’ll be relaunching with new adventures soon! Can you tell me anything about them now?

We have some really exciting destinations coming up that will be released on 12 December, and people interested can sign up to our newsletter and be the first to know what’s coming up. What I can tell you now is that there’s going to be really exciting multisensory holidays across the UK, Europe and worldwide. Because we’re a world-unique travel operator doing what we do, to our blind travellers, we mean pretty much everything. So we try and have a wide range of destinations and trip types.

In a time when slow travel is becoming increasingly popular, it sounds like Traveleyes really lends itself to that for both visually impaired and sighted travellers.

Absolutely. Both blind and sighted travellers absolutely love it because you’re completely engaged with what’s in front of you. So when we’re in Egypt, touching 3,000 year old temples, as a blind person, you get a buzz from that, just thinking I’m touching something that is created 3,000 years ago. Or you can be cooking in traditional Tuscan farmhouses and tasting the basil and tomato simply from the aromas in the air. In Peru, we go to the floating islands in Lake Titicaca and we meet indigenous people there that haven’t met a blind person before, but they make models of the islands so that we can touch them. Traveleyes travellers also love places like Cuba where it’s quite sensory and time has stood still. So as a blind person, you can feel the 1950s cars and run around sugar cane plantations. It’s brilliant.

You mention people often don’t come across blind travellers, so what type of reaction do you receive?

Yes, it’s rare for people to see a group of blind travellers because it just isn’t a done thing – that’s why Traveleyes is unique. It’s not surprising when people are initially shocked, but then they react with such warmth and they really want to help us have the best experience. For example, they’ve opened up glass cases in Lima in Peru before to let us touch the ancient Inca artefacts, which was so kind and enabling.

A group of blind travellers feel an ancient Egyptian wall (Amar Latif)

England Cerebral Palsy footballer and fellow trekker, Harry Baker, guides Amar through the alpine desert zone on route to the summit of Kilimanjaro (Theo Blossom)

It’s great to learn about the return of Traveleyes. I want to also congratulate you on your Kilimanjaro climb. I know you’re someone who isn’t afraid of a challenge, but was this one of the greatest yet?

Certainly one of the tallest. In the past, I’ve trekked 220 miles across Nicaragua, from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific Ocean, crossing a shark infested lake up a 5,000 ft volcano for the making of BBC Two documentary series called Beyond Boundaries. For Pilgrimage, I travelled across Serbia and Bulgaria to Istanbul. So in terms of challenges it was not the longest, but it was the tallest.

Kilimanjaro is almost 20,000ft and the highest point of Africa. I had locals guiding me and that was an amazing experience. At the beginning they were taking it very slow – on the mountain they have a saying pole pole (po-lay, po-lay) which means ‘slowly, slowly’, but they were definitely going blind pole pole, because people do tend to have low expectations of someone that’s blind. They were going so slowly, there was no way we were going to make it to the top if they didn’t start speeding up. After a while I told them I didn’t need to know every little bump, just if there was a big drop I needed to avoid or a gully I needed to jump. After that – off we went. I’ve learned to work with people from all over the world and from different backgrounds. People having preconceptions actually makes me stronger and makes me want to push through them.

I’ve learnt you were also named president of British walking charity Ramblers this year. How did this come about?

I received a letter in March asking if I would be interested in being the president and I was absolutely delighted. I’m all for enabling people to get out there and go on adventures, so it’s a real honour. I suppose having me involved really helps to encourage people from different backgrounds to take up walking, because walking sometimes is thought to be for certain types of people. For example, my parents didn’t really go walking because they thought it wasn’t for them. So by having me represent both blind and Asian communities at Ramblers will hopefully help promote that rambling is inclusive for all.

I imagine walking might seem quite daunting for those with visual impairments, so it’s great that you can prove to people it’s more than possible. What do you hope to achieve with the role?

I think the most challenging thing for blind people isn’t actually walking outside. They can get over the walking. I think the challenge is finding a sighted partner. My aim is to make it quite seamless for blind people to go out on walks. Most people often think oh god, how are they going to walk up a mountain? or how they’re going to walk in the countryside?, because they’re worried that they can’t see. But the challenge is actually just getting a sighted person to accompany a blind person. So that’s my vision [Amar chuckles] – getting blind and visually impaired people the ability to access the outdoors with ease.

As someone who loves walking, do you have a favourite route in the UK?

Oh there’s so many. But I previously did a show called River Walks for BBC, which won the Royal Television Society Awards for Best Documentary. We were in the Yorkshire Dales in a place called Nidderdale, and I really loved that route. We walked from Pateley Bridge, which has the oldest sweet shop in England, and along the River Nidd.

Whenever I’m with someone different guiding me, it always feels like a brand-new walk. As a blind person, you’re more aware of the ground beneath your feet, the sun on your back, the smells of wildflowers and the countryside. When I get to a view – although I can’t see it – I get a sighted person to describe it and I build up these incredible pictures in my head. I strongly believe that when you start exploring the world with all your senses, the world just comes alive.

Have you noticed any positive changes in the past few years to help make travel more accessible for visually impaired people?

From a blind person’s perspective, I haven’t really. Aeroplanes now have touch screens which haven’t been considered for visually impaired people – although I have heard Air Canada do now have accessible screens. Lifts in [some] hotels also use touchscreens, so I’m not able to use them. Museums also don’t seem to have many accessible things for blind travellers. Sometimes, I just want something simple like if it’s a beautiful building, I just want a model that I can touch. Sighted people can describe things in great details, but if you can touch it, you just get it straight away.

The things that a blind person need are so different to what someone in a wheelchair needs. We don’t need ramps, we don’t need accessible toilets. In fact, disabled toilets are quite disabling for a blind person, as the sinks are low down and the flush is in a strange place. So things like this, I would say, have not really given much consideration to blind people.

But this is why Traveleyes is so popular, because when a blind person has a sighted person beside them, the world just opens up.

As we are chatting to celebrate International Day of Persons with Disabilities, do you have a final message you would like to say to encourage those with visual impairments that travel is very much possible?

If you’ve got a disability, like being blind, the world will have so many preconceptions of what you can do, and you will have preconceptions yourself of what you can do. So try not to let your own preconceptions and other people’s preconceptions stop you from achieving your dreams and aspirations, and have confidence that you can do it. I found that’s really helped me.

For sighted, able-bodied people, my message to you would be to please remove those preconceptions. If you’ve never met a person with a disability or that’s blind before, don’t feel like you’re walking on eggshells. Don’t worry about saying the wrong things. Just ask the person how you can help them. Dialogue totally helps to create a productive way forward.

To learn more about Traveleyes and its relaunch in partnership with HF Holidays, visit the tour operator’s official website

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