Has the Coronavirus Destroyed Hostel Culture?

PHOTO: Sophie Herbert

With an ongoing pandemic and international travel restrictions still largely in place, the backpacking community wonders whether or not hostels will survive.

Conveniently situated steps away from Náměstí Míru metro station in Prague, the Czech Inn is within easy reach of Prague’s top sights like Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. The hostel’s collection of eight, 12, and 16-bed dorms, as well as its 34-bed basement dorm regularly sells out on a typical summer night, housing more than 200 guests at a time. Mathias Schwender, co-owner and co-founder of the Czech Inn, recorded 8,340 overnight stays at the hostel in August 2019, with the majority of hostellers coming from the United States, followed by the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and Japan. Its hostel bar hosts a regular rotation of nightly events, leading with a pub-quiz on Mondays and wrapping up with live DJs and karaoke nights at the end of the week. Its boisterous atmosphere was especially welcoming to solo travelers who are eager to mingle. But near the end of August this year, the number of overnight stays at the Czech Inn has dramatically decreased to 2,392, with most of their guests coming from other parts of the Czech Republic and neighboring Germany.

“This year, there are way less guests,” Schwender admits, adding that backpackers who choose to stay with them now will find that the hostel is “lower key” and the experience “more meditative.”

So far, handling the effects of the pandemic on the Czech Inn has been “one of the biggest challenges of my life,” says Schwender, “and [it’s] difficult to navigate through this time, especially being responsible for many staff members and other financial obligations.”

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As a part of Europe’s Famous Hostels (EFH), a network of over 30 of the continent’s top independently run hostels, Schwender has been in regular contact with other EFH hostel owners across the region during this pandemic. While hostels stood empty and quiet since their temporary closure in March, EFH hostel owners consistently exchanged information on COVID-19 best practices and discussed strategies for a safe reopening while still delivering the affordable and sociable experience that eager backpackers know and love.

St. Christopher’s InnSophie Herbert

At a hostel, your roommates change from day to day. Who you meet at the bar downstairs and in the communal kitchen while you cook dinner is one of those scenarios that’s determined by chance, with the possibility that they become an indispensable part of your journey. Hostels operate on the very idea of uniting people, which is the reason for organized events like walking tours and cooking classes, and the reason for communal areas like lounges, shared kitchens, and bars. Backpackers and budget travelers sign up for more than just an affordable place to stay when they book with a hostel—they’re signing up to be part of a community. The hosteling community gathers to share stories and make new friends, creating connections with a destination and its people. The sole element that hostels across the board are known and favored for is sociability, and it’s the one thing that hostels are taking steps to protect now.

As the majority of travel restrictions slowly eased across Europe in June, hostels began phased reopenings and implemented safety measures in order to rebuild the confidence of backpackers. But they continue to compete with hotels and Airbnbs that slashed prices to stay competitive in the market. While some hostels survived the worst of the pandemic in March, others closed for good, permanently shutting their doors to backpackers.

These days, hand sanitizer is installed in all common areas of a hostel, the check-in desks are protected by Plexiglas, and these businesses are operating on reduced occupancy to give travelers adequate space. The ability to access masks depends on the state of the pandemic in that country; while some hostels provide them readily, some are by request only. Breakfast buffets have been swapped for take-away breakfasts, and social events have been temporarily suspended or reduced in frequency. To further entice backpackers, hostels have dropped prices, and allow for the possibility to cancel up to the night before their arrival, in case borders unexpectedly close again.

At the two Flying Pig locations in Amsterdam, which have operated at an average of 50% occupancy throughout August 2020 compared to 96% in August 2019, there have been a number of operational changes based on government advice and feedback from the backpacking community. This includes reduced occupancy in dorm rooms, contactless check-in and payments, and moving non-essential communication to a digital platform.

On how backpackers so far have adapted to these new changes, Tom Noom, general manager of Flying Pig, notes “there’s a level of respect shown towards the changes that we’ve implemented, making it feel safe.” He added, “we also offer private rooms in…our hostels, so if there was a concern, they could still enjoy the communal aspect of backpacking, just with a little added space.”

Hostel owners across Europe have also had to shift gears and market to domestic travelers and European nationalities of all ages as they wait for international restrictions to lift, even converting some dorm rooms into private ones for the time being. “Our guest profile is usually young backpackers. However, due to travel restrictions, we can see a slight shift and absence of them for now,” says Veronika Solarova, hostel manager at St Christopher’s Inn, The Inn at London Bridge in London, England. She adds, “Sharing rooms with other unknown travelers is not possible at the moment due to [government] regulations and we are finding travelers are skewing to privates. However, we are also selling a lot of dorm rooms to groups of the same household.”

Despite the challenges faced by hostels at the moment, owners are eager to welcome guests back and are hopeful that hostel stays post-COVID will look the same as those during pre-pandemic times. But Solarova admits it’s difficult to estimate when that’ll be, as the hostel industry is highly dependent on tourism. All she can do at the moment is wait for all travel restrictions to be lifted.

St. Christopher’s InnSophie Herbert

Kash Bhattacharya, a digital nomad since 2009 and voice of the blog Budget Traveller, remains optimistic about the fate of the hostel industry. Since travel restrictions eased throughout Europe, he’s stayed in four hostels across Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic. “They give you an experience that you just can’t get in a hotel. No two hostels are the same, and each has its own kind of connection to a city,” Kash says fondly of hostels.

“At each hostel, you meet a different crowd of people, and you have this amazing experience of falling in love with travel and a distinct community,” Kash explains. His deep appreciation for the hostel culture led him to spearhead the Adopt a Hostel campaign to save hostels around the world from the financial blowbacks of the pandemic.

Few hostels have emerged from the pandemic relatively unscathed. Long Story Short, a contemporary design hostel in Olomouc, a budding gastro tourism destination in the Czech Republic 160 miles east of the capital of Prague, is one example. Eva Dlabalová, managing director of the hostel, credits the success of her business to the location of her hostel.

“We’re very lucky to be in a city that’s not the capital city. That for me is key,” Dlabalová says. Prague is one of the cities in the country with the highest number of coronavirus cases. Instead, since restrictions eased in the Czech Republic, domestic city dwellers have been looking to Olomouc for a getaway.

When the pandemic first hit in March, the hostel temporarily closed, and Dlabalová let go of 20 of her 25 staff members with the promise of rehiring them. Dlabalová and her management team focused on diversifying the hostel’s income streams through their on-site eatery and cafe. In addition to offering take-out, the team designed a website within a week to deliver ready-made meals to customers who were in lockdown, even collaborating with local farmers to sell their produce who can’t otherwise because of the coronavirus. The efforts of Dlabalová garnered the support of locals, and Dlabalová has been able to re-hire 18 of those 20 staff she laid off. “There was no income from the hostel, but there was income from the cafe and restaurant. It was enough to survive [the pandemic].”

The hostel, which re-opened in May and has a maximum occupancy of 56 guests, is running at full capacity again.

Long Story ShortEva Dlabalová

Backpackers have mixed feelings surrounding hostel stays during this ongoing pandemic. Among those recently returning to the European hostel scene is 32-year-old Jordy Schep, an avid rock climber from Amsterdam, who flew to Mallorca for 10 days with EasyJet. Usually a regular backpacker who goes on several climbing trips a year, Schep notes that this trip to the Spanish island in August is his first in 2020. The hostel he booked in the town of Esporles on the western side of Mallorca has a maximum capacity of 50 guests, but the owner capped it at 15 to give backpackers ample space. Though Schep acknowledges the measures his hostel is taking, he says the communal nature and shared environment of a hostel “is not really corona proof,” adding “I don’t think you can escape corona when someone brings it in here.”

However, comfort levels among hostel goers range. Joe C. from the United Kingdom, who recently traveled from London to Trogir, Croatia, booked a six-bed dorm. But for the two nights he stayed there, he only had one other roommate. Joe reveals he wasn’t worried about sharing a space with another traveler and explained that “Croatia had extremely low [coronavirus] rates, plus the few other travelers were from countries with similarly low rates.”

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