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How Hostels are Trying to Survive COVID-19

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

“Hostels are built on the idea of community and sharing. Travelers 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. Based on my own experience, I couldn’t have said it better. That’s why I love staying in hostels when I travel. But now I am wondering – will it ever be the same post-COVID? I am eagerly looking forward to 2021 to find out…

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

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

Why I loved staying in hostels

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 travelers who stayed in hostels for their unique offerings:

  • 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 traveling solo a few years ago. As a pensioner on a fixed income, the “lower costs” of my accommodation meant that I had more money to spend on seeing the sights in every place that I went.
  • Sociability – The friendly atmosphere is really what became the main draw of hostels for me. It’s all about the “people you meet along the journey”. This article described hostel visitors as mostly millennial and Gen Z backpackers as well as solos and younger travelers. It said that hostels are even attracting families. But it left out a demographic using hostels with increasing frequency, the older generation – yes, seniors like me.

One of my best travel memories was of meeting two sisters from India cooking curry in the kitchen. They were in their seventies and after years of traveling this way, they were talking about cutting back on their adventures. And yet, I was  was just getting started (at the same age). On the other end of the spectrum were the many twenty-somethings that I met. In Galway, I was invited to join my five room-mates, (all recent university grads) for a delightful lunch at a local pub . These were only a few of the many travelers that I communed with either within the hostel walls, or in the pubs and dance halls nearby.

Social distancing and hosteling culture are not companionable

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  has always been fun to just “hang out”, share a meal or a beer with new found friends, and exchange travel tips and stories.

Was it Will Rogers who said: “Strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet.”

Smaller hostel owners will likely find their ability to pivot to a new model or offerings  easier than the larger ones who often relied on crowds and a party atmosphere (like The Generator in Dublin where I stayed). Now, 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 there (like I did a few years ago).

One of my craziest hostel experiences was waking up in a room surrounded with 25 other women and I was racing to be one of the early-birds to the showers. While this may have felt like “fun” then, I would not even consider trying this during the pandemic, even with heightened cleaning and sanitizing standards. 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 more 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 love this quote:

“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.”    – Alexandre E. Petri

It looks like it might take a while before the same levels of sociability that I love about the hostel environment returns. I am hoping however that the affordability remains. Owners are desperately trying to keep their accommodations open in the short-term while they recover the heavy financial losses they suffered from the COVID devastation of the 2020 tourist season.

And while seniors (on a limited budget) may not be a large demographic of the hostel scene, there are a growing number who are seeing the potential benefits that i have experienced: a cheap place to stay; and a great way to meet people while you travel.

Will the social aspects of hosteling survive the pandemic

Right now, I 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 write about 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 be first in line,  so that I can once again live and travel safely.

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

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 a June 28th article in the Conde Nast TravelerHow 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, you will see you “Judi B – on the move” again.

Read these blogs for more news about hostels, and the pandemic:

Help for stranded travelers

It was also great news to see how Hostelworld, and the hostels affiliated with them, are helping stranded travelers. Over 70 hostels in more than 35 countries are offering “Beds for Backpackers” in return for a few hours of volunteer labor. When travel restrictions caught some people off guard, they were not left high and dry. They were still able to find a safe place to sleep. This is just another example of why hostels are different than standard tourist accommodation. I found it heartwarming to see how the “community spirit” in the hostel-world – which is what makes it special  in the travel industry – lives on, even during a pandemic.

Have you stayed in a hostel?  When?  At what age?  Were you traveling solo or in a group? Will you do it again? Would you recommend the experience to a senior?

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