Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Is the end coming for the humble hostel?


There's a shift going on at the moment. You may be aware of it, you may feel quite militant about it. On the other hand, you may have never even known that it was a possibility for yourself..

There is a charity in England called The Youth Hostels Association (or YHA for short). There have been, since its inception (1909 in Germany), millions of people stay all over the world in YHA beds.

The premise is you can stay there (at any age - the name is a bit misleading) for little money.

Historically, in return for cheap accommodation you would help maintain the hostel.

Common duties were sweeping, pot washing etc..

The ideal is now regarded by many as an old fashioned one, centred around an evening communal room, where singing was the order of the day. Alcohol was prohibited and there were strict segregation for men and women at bedtime (married or not). Of course these practices have now been relaxed, singing has given way to internet access and the dormitories have given way to smaller bedrooms for more privacy.

Even so the English YHA has been in decline since it's heyday in the early 1950's. This has been for a mix of reasons, mostly because it is catering to a market that no longer exists to the same extent. People going away no longer want to sweep up and so the YHA has moved with this, trying to align its business model closer to that of a B&B.

(Hostelling is not in decline all over the world though. In Australia, hostelling is still expanding (although there are only 120 official hostels there compared to over 300 at its peak in England)).

Why has this come to the fore now?

There are closures planned in England. The latest batch include hostels that are currently profitable, but when re-modelling is required in the future it would be expensive. By selling these it re-fills the coffers allowing other new hostels elsewhere (also, the YHA has been running at a small loss).

This has lead to groups becoming upset as not only will this impact on the local economy, but some of these hostels are in prime locations, and are beautiful old buildings. It is widely felt that it would be a loss for these Hostels to be bought and future generations staying in 'identity-kit' buildings in poorer locations.

Of course, the advantage of all this is that the YHA will not need to pass on the cost of the upkeep of these older buildings, and cost is one of the core principles. The current mission statement of Hostelling International is:

"To promote the education of all young people of all nations, but especially young people of limited means, by encouraging in them a greater knowledge, love and care of the countryside and an appreciation of the cultural values of towns and cities in all parts of the world, and as ancillary thereto, to provide hostels or other accommodation in which there shall be no distinctions of race, nationality, colour, religion, sex, class or political opinions and thereby to develop a better understanding of their fellow men, both at home and abroad"

The current English YHA statement is shorter, but you get the point. This leaves the YHA with a difficult choice.

Eventually, if the current downward trend continues, the YHA is going to run low on funds again. Do they sell off more properties, Increase the cost to stay in them or Offer fewer facilities / reduce costs?

Personally I think that it may be beneficial to allow guests to reduce the cost of their stay by volunteering to help with the work.. So a group of walkers could cover the cost of their breakfast by washing the pots for an hour after a meal, or someone travelling alone who may be a life member and in no hurry to get somewhere could make their stay very cost effective by spending a couple of hours working in the hostel.

Whatever happens, the YHA is going to have to make some tough decisions In their future.


(Sources: Wikipedia, YHA England, SYHA and Hostelling International. YHA Logo courtesy of YHA website.)