Local Peace Economy

How Youth Hostels Are a Cornerstone for Building a Local Peace Economy

Despite Airbnb, the hostel industry perseveres.

Photo Credit: Kanashkin Evgeniy / Shutterstock

There was a time when a weary traveler who needed a cheap room in a new city for the night would turn to a youth hostel. That was before Airbnb and the “sharing economy” became the thing to do, marketed as a way to connect with locals, and live like a local. It was also before the “Hostel” movie trilogy, which put what some might call a “stigma” on the idea of staying in one.

But youth hostels still have their niche in the United States. They’re still cheap. And they are integrating travelers with each other and with the local community now more than ever.

Hostels are uniquely different, and each has it’s own offerings. Some offer adventure excursions, social events, workshops, and more, often with connections to local small businesses, community groups, and cooperatives, including bike shops and farmers markets. Local staff share their local connections, with referrals to the best taco stand and cafés and local craft beers. Many also have community bulletin boards, with recommendations for trusted local cab drivers, restaurants, thrift stores, bookshops, record stores, and more. Each has its own vibe, so a hostel in Michigan is probably different than a hostel in New York.

Minneapolis International Youth Hostel, for example, is an old Victorian mansion that is reminiscent of a proverbial Midwestern grandma’s house, replete with the area rugs and light fixtures. Last month, 26-year-old Yuliya Manyakina stayed for a weekend visit from Fort Yates, North Dakota. “It’s just a great place to stay,” she says of the hostel. “It’s cheaper than a hotel, in a convenient downtown location, and it’s near the Institute of Art. I love hostels.” Like many hostels, it’s also convenient to public transit.

Manyakina also loves being able to connect with people from different places and different countries, and it’s one of the primary reasons she stays in hostels. “There’s people willing to make conversation and be open. That can create connections and fosters community, across cultures. “I prefer to use hostels for that social aspect when I travel alone or with a friend,” says Manyakina.

Brent Underwood, owner of HK Hostel in Austin, Texas, echoes that sentiment, saying hostels appeal to a different demographic than Airbnb, and that Airbnb hasn’t really impacted his business.

While the hostel demographic is still the 20-30-something crowd, guests are often much older or younger. During a recent visit to Minneapolis, a 19-year-old traveled up from Atlanta to see one of YouTube star jacksepticeye’s only US shows.

Björn Stensson, 30, was visiting Hostel Memphis earlier this month from Sweden. “It wasn’t only about cheaper. It’s about meeting people.” Stensson and his brother were there celebrating their father Thorbjörn Stensson’s 70th birthday with a tour through the Mississippi Delta down to New Orleans.

The family had an Airbnb booked in New Orleans, but were happy with their Memphis hostel pick. “This building is very different and that’s cool in itself,” Björn said. Many hostels offer local art, or rooms painted by local artists.

And, there’s another bonus: “So many toilets!” gushed the elder Thorbjörn, who lamented when you stay in an Airbnb or hotel and there’s only one bathroom, you need to wait.

Hostels are also sustainable, Manyakina pointed out, recommending a green hostel in Toronto. And when you’re simply sharing space and reusing a single towel and bedding, it’s not hard to see how the carbon footprint might be a bit smaller than your typical hotel.

Some hostels also take the community to a deeper level. At the Memphis hostel, the people who work there live there as well, and the proceeds, after expenses, go to pay for things like daily community meals served at the affiliated church next door.

Alijah Wilder, 21, was visiting the Memphis hostel from Arkansas, and didn’t know what Airbnb is—a reminder of the digital divide in rural America. In town to visit friends and family, Wilder says the hostel was not only cheaper, but it was also “more private” than staying with friends and family. Plus, she says, “you get to cook your own food.”

Underwood says hostels also create a more memorable experience. “The atmosphere, when you stay somewhere, you’ll forget the color of the sheets, the color of the walls. But cultivate the atmosphere where you can create lifelong friendships—the most important and obvious thing hostels do is foster [those] interactions.”

Underwood’s Austin hostel coordinates social events, group outings, and trips to a local BBQ joints. An Airbnb host might make a good recommendation, he says, but it’s not the same as meeting new friends at a hostel and going out with them. “It’s difficult to replicate the effect of 10 or 12 backpackers hanging out planning the next couple days.”

“Mom and pop one-off locations—I love talking to them and supporting them,” he adds. “We don’t have a formal engagement [with local businesses],” he adds, saying he never wants his opinion swayed by financial reasons. That’s liberating for him and his hostel’s guests. “We’re friends with Craftsman [bar] next door. So I recommend there,” along with various other cafes and restaurants he likes. He also is happy Vera Cruz tacos (“they have the best tacos in Austin”) is nearby.

Underwood also says as more people stay in hostels, the differentiation will occur that will help the industry. “With hotels, you know there’s a Red Roof Inn or a Four Seasons. That segmentation can and should happen in the hostel industry, so you can more closely get the experience you’re looking for.”

And that experience—one of sharing with locals and fellow travelers—is what’s keeping hostels a popular option, in the age of Airbnb.

Valerie Vande Panne is an AlterNet writing fellow who contributes to Columbia Journalism Review and Reuters news service, among other outlets. She is the former editor-in-chief of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times, and the former news editor of High Times magazine. She is the founder of Blackbird Literacy, an organization providing books to residents and literacy programs in Detroit. Connect with her on Twitter @asktheduchess.

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