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How Hostels Are Surviving COVID-19

quote: "it's not the jouney but who you travel with"

“Hostels are built on the idea of community and sharing. Travellers never know from one day to the next who’ll they meet or where they might end up.”” These are the words of Alexandre E. Petri. But based on own experience, I couldn’t have said it better. And that’s why I love staying in them when I travel. But now I wonder – will it ever be the same post-COVID19?

I am eagerly looking forward to 2021 to find out…

I was in the final planning stage of a trip to Prague, Vienna and Budapest in March 2020 when Canada announced the pandemic lockdown. I might have been staying in one of the hostels described in the Toronto Star article “Hostel Environment” (originally published in the NY Times) – if it hadn’t been for COVID-19.

This article describes how many of the hostels in Europe  are now suffering and also trying to find the “new normal” with social distancing for those brave enough to “hit the road” again after months of self-isolation or quarantine. The numbers of hostel –users is still low, so they are able to make adjustments to their processes, the accommodation and the culture. But the fact that the European Union has banned US visitors, which is at least 18 percent of the potential guests, most of the hostels will be facing financial challenges to make it through the year. I, for one, am hoping they all survive and will still be there for people like me when we need them next year.

As I read about owners trying to retain the culture of their individual hostel during these challenging times, my heart went out to them. In the past, I was one of nearly 100 million travellers who stayed in hostels for their unique offerings:

quote: "it's not the jouney but who you travel with"

  • Affordability – while this may have been what drew me to hostels in the first place, it was not what kept me coming back. I started travelling solo a few years ago and as a pensioner on a fixed income, the lower costs of accommodation meant I had more money to spend on seeing the sights in every place I went.
  • Socialability – is really the main draw of hostels for me. It’s all about the people you meet along the journey. This article described the many hostel visitors as millennial and Gen Z backpackers as well as solos and younger travellers, and that they are even attracting families. But they left out a demographic using hostels with increasing frequency, the older generation. One of my best memories was of meeting two sisters from India cooking curry in the kitchen. They were in their seventies and after years of travelling this way, they were talking about cutting back on their adventures. I also remember having a delightful lunch at a local pub with my five room-mates, all twenty-something recent uni-grads. These were only a few of the many travellers that I communed with either within the hostel walls or in the local pubs and dance halls nearby.

The pandemic is having its greatest impact on the social aspects of the hostel experience. Almost all hostels have a kitchen and/or a games room where it was always so much fun to just hang out, share a meal or a beer with new found friends, and exchange travel tips and stories.

“Strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet.” ~ Will Rogers

Smaller hostel owners will likely find their ability to pivot to a new model or offerings  easier than the larger ones who relied on crowds and a party atmosphere like the Generator in Dublin where I stayed. With the fear of catching  COVID still hanging over us, I cannot imagine myself joining dozens of others to dance or drink at the bar.

One of my craziest hostel experiences was waking up in a room surrounded with 26 other women and I was racing to be one of the early-birds to the showers. While this may have felt like “fun” a few years ago, I would not even consider trying this during the pandemic, even with heightened cleanliness standards and sanitizing. To minimize the risk as we move into recovery, many hostels are currently capping their occupation at 50-60% to allow for more social distancing and cleaning.

But isn’t social distancing at a hostel an oxymoron? Or as Jose de la Rosa, general manager of The Quisby in New Orleans said: “A socially distant dance party doesn’t sound very fun,” I particularly loved this Petri’s description:

“Social distancing in a hostel is like wearing a snowsuit to Miami Beach: It’s the exact opposite of what you’re meant to do.”

So it might take a while before the same levels of socialability that attracted me to the hostel environment returns. And I am hoping that the affordability will remain as owners despeartley try to keep their accommodations open and recover the heavy financial losses their suffered from the COVID devastation of the 2020 tourist season.

And while seniors may not be a large demographic of the hostel scene, there are a growing number who are seeing the benefits as I have described them: a cheap place to stay; and a great way to meet people while you travel.  For more articles, see the bottom of this blog.

I – for one – am praying for a vaccine soon so that I can safely hit the road without fear of contracting the Coronavirus. By this time next year, I am hoping to be able to share my adventures in Eastern Europe, including my recommendations for hostels. I consider myself young at heart, fit and resilient as well as safety-conscious. When a vaccine is available I will definitely add it to my annual flu vaccine so that I can live and travel safely.

Marie Le Marie, co-owner of The Lights Hostel in Spain was quoted as saying: “Our travellers are resilient.” From experience, I’d say she is very right. Hostel travellers are a special breed – resilient and adventuresome. So let’s hope that hostel owners can hang in there too and provide a new style of post-COVID adventure that sustains the “joy” of hostel-travel asa social experince.

Alastair Thomann, the chief executive officer at Freehand and Generator agrees: “that given the resilient and adventurous spirit” of hostel travelers,  properties are expected to be back to normal sooner rather than later. In the June 28th article in the Conde Nast Traveler “How Hostels Are Going Socially Distant While Keeping their DNA”  Thomann said: “The hostel magic [emphasis mine] won’t completely disappear but in the coming months there will have to be changes,” and added that “Once we get beyond this transitional phase, we look forward to getting back to the good old normal.”

Research seems to indicate that the hostel industry will recover: is predicting only a 1% growth this year due to COVID, but a  growth of almost 7% by 2023. And when it does, I will see you “on the move” again.

For a great description of staying in a hostel read: Youth Hostels 101

Or check out Rick Steves advice: European Hostels: The Cure for Expensive, Lonely Travel

When I travel, I use Hostelworld to find and book my hostels. Check here for COVID-19 updates on if you are planning to travel during the pandemic. .

It was also nice to see how Hostelworld and the hostels affiliated with them are helping stranded travellers. Over 70 hostels in more than 35 countries are offering “Beds for Backpackers” in return for a few hours of volunteer labour. I found it heartwarming to see how the community spirit lives on in the hostel world, even during a pandemic. When travel restrictions have caught some off guard, they are not left high and dry. Then can find a safe place to sleep. This is just another example of why hostels are different than standard tourist accommodation.

Have you stayed in a hostel?  When?  At what age?  Will you do it again?

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