Benedita Vasconcellos, the owner of Goodmorning Solo Traveler Hostel in Lisbon, was on the verge of selling her beloved business last June. The hostel has kept her young and connected to travelers, she said, but the pandemic shut down the 10-year-old business for months, leaving Vasconcellos feeling like an injured athlete worried about getting back into the game.
“I have decided not to sell and face the consequences, whatever they are,” said Vasconcellos, 65. “If this continues, it continues, and it will be really good.”
As for the hostel’s future, Vasconcellos said: “I always question it.”
This summer, spurred on by the vaccine rollout, budget travelers began returning to hostel life, grabbing dorm beds and relearning to share spaces and conversations with strangers. As hostels reappeared, they did so according to local guidelines that were gradually relaxed or lifted, allowing many to start looking and feeling like hostels again. There was chatting in the common rooms, full dorms, and some – but not all – activities were back in session.
But travel has changed dramatically and hostels, the backbone of affordable travel, have barely survived. The future for many is uncertain. Hostels – the majority of which are small businesses – are built on community and camaraderie, places where people go from showing up to sharing meals and beers or planning the next leg of their trip together. . They are a Petri dish for friendships, but in the event of a pandemic there was concern that they could also be a Petri dish for COVID-19.
The border restrictions, closures and social distancing have been particularly devastating. And the challenges aren’t over yet: the more contagious delta variant brings uncertainty for the fall travel season. Earlier this month, the European Union removed the United States from a list of safe countries, paving the way for some member states to impose restrictions, especially on unvaccinated travelers, or ban American travelers altogether. non-essential. Countries outside the bloc, including Norway, have also taken similar steps.
“We are constantly adapting,” said Melkorka Ragnhildardottir, manager of Kex Hostel in Reykjavik, Iceland. “You just need to take things as they come.”
An increase in the number of domestic travelers or help from government programs has helped hostels get by. But owners and managers have had to rethink their operating strategies, from starting bagel businesses to renting dorms for group bookings only or creating office space. Many cling to the belief that hostels play a vital role in the travel ecosystem – an inexpensive way to visit new cities and make friends while doing so – one, they say, that even a pandemic can not eliminate.
“The world of hostels is incredibly creative,” said Kash Bhattacharya, travel blogger and author of “The Grand Hostels: Luxury Hostels of the World”. “He always has the ability to confuse expectations.”
“Some things are going to change, but I don’t think the hostel core is going to change,” Vasconcellos said. “People want to meet new people.”
New ways of doing business
Linda Martinez, co-owner of Beehive Hostel in Rome with her husband, struggled after it reopened in June 2020, with few visitors despite the high season. When the second wave of the coronavirus hit last fall, the hostel and the couple’s trust died out. “Even though we had the Beehive for over 20 years, we felt so bad about ourselves,” Martinez said.
Her husband’s bread-making skills helped save them. In October, they launched Beehive Bagels, which delivers freshly made bagels across Rome and Italy.
At its peak, Beehive Bagels was making 1,200 bagels per week. Sales have fallen recently, but the carbohydrate-laden impact on morale has remained.
“The bagel business has been a boost not only financially, but psychologically and emotionally,” said Martinez, 54. “It helped us overcome this lean period we found ourselves in.” The hive has been occupied by mostly European tourists, a change from its predominantly American guests, but it is still not at pre-pandemic levels. Clouds of concern remain for late fall, Martinez added.
Many hostels have turned to the growing contingent of non-office-bound travelers embracing remote working. Goodmorning in Lisbon started offering all-inclusive and long-term stay options and built a modest coworking space. El Granado in Granada, Spain offers discounts at two local co-working spaces in town. The Yard, a Bangkok hostel, has converted its eight dorms into offices that it rents out to local startups.
But even with the reinvention, businesses, including Goodmorning, were languishing and many hostels were disappearing. According to the global booking site Hostelworld, about 13% of the 17,700 properties featured on its site in December 2019 had closed temporarily or permanently by December 2020. This year, about 6% have closed, with a third in Asia.
Overall, hostel reservations remain significantly below pre-pandemic levels. According to Hostelworld, bookings in 2020 are down 79% compared to 2019 and in the first half of 2021, they have fallen further – a decrease of 73% – compared to the same period in 2020.
But the majority of travelers still choose dorms, according to Hostelworld, echoing a trend seen by hostel owners even before the vaccine rolls out. Travel forums on Reddit are again teeming with travelers asking questions about hostels, with at least one moderator saying the queries are less about COVID protocols and more about the atmosphere.
“I was a little surprised at how many people were moving so quickly, but once we opened up and met everyone you could see the energy,” said Ragnhildardottir. In June, Iceland lifted restrictions on masks, distancing, rallies and opening hours.
But the country is now facing a wave of new infections, with some measures being reintroduced, including a negative COVID test for entry, even for vaccinated travelers. While this has yet to affect Kex’s bookings, Ragnhildardottir is bracing for any further action that may disrupt people’s travel plans.
Other owners also claim that delta has yet to make an impact, although they point out that they have learned to work from day to day.
“I’d rather not think about it now and work like it doesn’t come, because I can’t prepare for it,” Vasconcellos said. “There is nothing I can do to prevent it or to help deal with it if it happens.”
Some hostels remain closed, with an uncertain future. Jim Holden, co-owner of Ginger Monkey in Zdiar, Slovakia, closed his hostel at the foot of the Tatras last spring. He has considered turning it into an artists’ retreat while his partner still dreams of reopening.
“The amount of money, time and effort it takes to restart, it’s no use unless you know you’re going to start running,” Holden said. “The longer it lasts, the less my heart is.”
Some lingering concerns
Anika Rodriguez had long been saving for a trip to Europe after graduating from cosmetology school, which was rigorous and kept her indoors, she said. “I never saw anyone and didn’t make any new friends,” said Rodriguez, 20. “I was losing my mind.”
In July, she and her sister, Leyla, who had just finished high school, left California on a one-way ticket to Greece. They are fully vaccinated and stay in dormitories, as well as occasionally with friends. They say they are diligently following local guidelines. News of the groundbreaking cases and declining immunity didn’t make them rethink their trip, but they wondered if dorms continued to be the best option, said Leyla, 18.
“It’s not much more to have a private room so that we can stay safe,” Anika said. Their biggest fear is getting stuck or having to end their trip early, they said.
Among backpackers, travel experts and hostel owners, the overwhelming consensus is that while some environments may be quieter than others – hostel bars close earlier, for example, or no family dinners – and the collection of travelers is less diverse internationally, the hostel vibe that makes travelers feel at home is staying.
After plans to stay with a friend in Hawaii collapsed in April, Kalanny Nogueras found a hostel with good reviews that offered both private rooms and dorms.
“Do I really do a solo trip justice if I stay in my own room?” Nogueras, 21, remembers thinking. She was traveling alone for the first time, fully vaccinated, visiting a state with strict pandemic regulations and the general climate seemed optimistic by then. She booked a bed in a four-person dorm.
“This is the only way I will travel now,” she said.
Still, some travelers choose private rooms. After reaching her goal of 30 days of full vaccination, Barbara Konchinski, from the Boston area, stayed at a hostel in Guatemala in May. Going from total isolation to sharing a room with strangers got him thinking. Konchinski, 31, opted for a private room.
“As anxious as I was, I really missed being around people and hearing stories about norms different from mine,” Konchinski said.
In June, Ellie Beargeon, a former military man accustomed to sharing a tent with about 40 other officers, stayed at a Denver inn on a road trip out west. Beargeon, 24, who is fully vaccinated, has reserved a bed in a 16-bed dormitory.
But she felt uncomfortable, in large part because of the guests flouting the rules of the inn. She canceled her next hostel reservation in Utah and camped instead.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.