Youth hostels have been transformed over the last twenty to thirty years. The physical and structural changes seen in the hostels themselves are less dramatic than the changes seen in the people who frequent them and who have destroyed the wonderful feeling of camaraderie which formerly existed there. I believe that the negative transformation of hostels can be traced to three major factors: the popularity of Lonely Planet , the baby boomer generation, and the smartphone.
Before Lonely Planet and Rough Guide arrived on the mass market shelves, information on hostels was more difficult to come by. Sure, there existed some travel guides which listed the hostels in various countries, but you had to search them out, especially in the pre-internet days. After LP and RG became extremely popular, followed soon after by the internet and its plethora of travel sites, hostels became known to a much wider audience, far beyond their traditional base of young backpackers. One of the many consequences of this was that millions of first-time hostel guests were now flooding the market and few of them knew anything of the traditional culture of hostels. For this new wave of hostel-goers, it was about one thing: money. Hostels were seen as the cheapest accommodation available, and for those on a tight budget, it was an easy call.
Some of my younger readers may be wondering what this ‘traditional culture’ of hostels was. Quite simply, it was a culture of openness and friendship. Saving money was only one of many reasons for people to stay in youth hostels. Equally as important was the opportunity to make friendships with others from around the world who shared a passion for travel, exploration, and discussion. The communal kitchen, the dorm rooms, and all the common areas were places where you could meet fellow travelers and make instant friendships. Traditionally, hostels were one of the few places in society where it was not only permissible to approach and greet a stranger, it was encouraged.
I have stayed at a handful of hostels in South America and Asia over the past few years, and I have witnessed the rapid decline in the old camaraderie and sharing which used to define the hostel experience. Hostels may have been able to withstand the onslaught of the new breed of budget traveler and even instill in some of them the hostel ethic, but they will surely not be able to survive the invasion of computers and smartphones.
Most hostels still have small libraries or reading rooms with worn copies of old Kerouac novels and LP guides, but nobody reads those anymore and certainly nobody gathers there to talk. Nowadays, people only sit at the computers which more and more hostels are offering. The remainder of the guests sprawl on the couches staring into their smartphones, lost to the world and oblivious to their fellow guests and the happenings in the hostel. Animated conversation and the excited retelling of adventures are rarely heard today inside the walls of hostels.
Baby boomers need to take their share of blame as well for the decline of hostels. Remember, these establishments were always known as YOUTH hostels in the past. These days, the ‘youth’ part is frequently dropped and they are referred to simply as ‘hostels.’ Why? When and how was ‘youth’ dropped? Was there a vote taken? Was it simply an acknowledgement of the new reality? That reality being that many older people are now enjoying the benefits of hostels.
I don’t know exactly when middle-aged and old people started to frequent youth hostels in large numbers, but I suspect it was sometime in the 1980s, right when boomers were reaching middle age. Not wanting to let go of their youth or acknowledge the arrival of middle age, staying at a hostel affirmed to them that they could still hang with the young crowd.
Some will argue that this is a good thing. Hostels should be open to everyone and having some older folks around adds a bit of flavor to the whole vibe. I couldn’t disagree more. The low cost of hostels and the young clientele was an arrangement that made complete sense. The theory behind hostels was that young people, fresh out of college and jobless, had little money but still wanted to see the world and they should have a clean, comfortable, and safe place to stay. Their parents, and older people in general, who did have money and established careers, were expected to stay in regular hotels. Well-off and middle-aged people who choose to stay in hostels to be cheap and save a few dollars or who hope to appear ‘hip’ when they are deep into their 50s or 60s strike me as somewhat vulgar.