• The San Juan Daily Star

Hostels, havens for the thrifty, fight to survive the pandemic

Inside the Goodmorning Solo Traveller Hostel in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 25, 2021. This summer, prompted by vaccine rollouts, budget travelers began wading back into hostel life — but the challenges are far from over.

By Alexandra E. Petri

Benedita Vasconcellos, the owner of Goodmorning Solo Traveller Hostel in Lisbon, was on the verge of selling her beloved business last June. The hostel kept her young and connected to travelers, she said, but the pandemic shuttered the 10-year-old business for months, leaving Vasconcellos feeling like an injured athlete worried about getting back into the game.

“I decided not to sell and to face the consequences, whatever they would be,” Vasconcellos, 65, said. “If it goes on, it goes on, and it will be really good.”

As for the hostel’s future, Vasconcellos said, “I still question it.”

This summer, prompted by vaccine rollouts, budget travelers began wading back into hostel life, snatching up dorm beds and relearning how to share spaces and conversations with strangers. As hostels reemerged, they did so under local guidelines that were gradually eased or lifted, enabling many to start looking and feeling like hostels again. There was chatter in the common rooms, fully booked dorms and some activities — though not all — were back in session.

But travel has dramatically changed, and hostels, the backbone of affordable travel, 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 introducing themselves to sharing meals and beers or planning the next leg of their journeys together. They are a petri dish for friendships, but in a pandemic, there was concern they could also be a petri dish for COVID-19.

Border restrictions, lockdowns and social distancing were particularly devastating. And the challenges are not yet over: The more contagious delta variant brings uncertainty for the fall travel season. Earlier this month, the European Union removed the United States from a safe list of countries, leading the way for some member states to impose restrictions, particularly on unvaccinated travelers, or banning nonessential American travelers altogether. Countries outside of the bloc, too, including Norway, have taken similar steps.

“We are in constant adjustment,” said Melkorka Ragnhildardottir, manager of Kex Hostel in Reykjavik, Iceland. “You just need to take things as they come.”

A rise in domestic travelers or assistance from government programs has helped hostels scrape by. But owners and managers have had to rethink their operating strategies, from launching bagel businesses to renting dorm rooms for group bookings only or creating office spaces. Many cling to the belief that hostels play a vital role in the travel ecosystem — an inexpensive way visit new cities and make friends while doing it — one, they say, not even a pandemic can eliminate.

“The world of hostels is so incredibly creative,” said Kash Bhattacharya, a travel blogger and author of “The Grand Hostels: Luxury Hostels of the World.” “It still has the ability to confound expectations.”

“Some things will change, but I don’t think that the core of the hostels will change,” Vasconcellos said. “People want to meet new people. People want to travel.”

New ways of doing business

Linda Martinez, who co-owns the Beehive Hostel in Rome with her husband, struggled after reopening 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 confidence, went dark. “Even though we had the Beehive for more than 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 throughout Rome and Italy.

At its busiest, Beehive Bagels made 1,200 bagels weekly. Sales have dropped recently, but the carbo-loaded impact on morale stuck.

“The bagel business was a boost not only financially, but psychologically and emotionally,” Martinez, 54, said. “That helped us get over this low period we were in.” The Beehive has been busy with 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 autumn, Martinez added.

Many hostels pivoted to the growing contingent of travelers unbound by offices and embracing remote work. Goodmorning in Lisbon started offering all-inclusive, long-term stay options and built a modest co-working space. El Granado in Granada, Spain, offers discounts at two local co-working spaces in town. The Yard, a hostel in Bangkok, converted its eight dorms into offices that it rents to local startups.

But even with reinvention, businesses, including Goodmorning, languished, and many hostels disappeared. According to the global booking site Hostelworld, about 13% of the 17,700 properties featured on its site in December 2019 had temporarily or permanently closed by December 2020. This year, about 6% have closed, a third of which are in Asia.

Overall hostel bookings remain drastically short of pre-pandemic levels. According to Hostelworld, reservations in 2020 declined 79% compared with 2019, and in the first half of 2021, fell further — a drop of 73% — compared with the same period in 2020.

But the majority of travelers are still choosing dorms, according to Hostelworld, echoing a trend that hostel owners saw even before vaccine rollouts. Travel forums on Reddit are once again bursting with travelers asking questions about hostels, with at least one moderator saying the queries are less about COVID protocols and more focused on atmosphere.

Some lingering worries among travelers

Anika Rodriguez had long been saving for a trip to Europe following her graduation from cosmetology school, which was rigorous and kept her indoors, she said. “I never saw people and had not made any new friends,” Rodriguez, 20, said. “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 are staying in dorms, as well as occasionally with friends. They say they diligently follow local guidance. The news about breakthrough cases and waning immunity has not made them rethink their trip, but they have wondered whether dorms continue to be the best option, Leyla, 18, said.

“It is not that much more to get a private room for us to stay safe,” Anika said. Their bigger 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 more muted than others — hostel bars closing earlier, for example, or no family dinners — and the collection of travelers is less internationally diverse, the hostel vibe that makes travelers feel at home remains.

After plans to stay with a friend in Hawaii fell through in April, Kalanny Nogueras found a hostel with good reviews that had both private rooms and dorms available.

“Am I really doing a solo trip justice if I stay in my own room?” Nogueras, 21, recalled thinking. She was traveling alone for the first time, fully vaccinated, visiting a state with strict pandemic regulations and the overall climate then seemed optimistic. She booked a bed in a four-person dorm.

“That is now the only way I will travel,” she said, saying she met a friend in her first room.

Still, some travelers choose private rooms.

After hitting her 30-day, fully vaccinated mark, Barbara Konchinski, who is from the Boston area, stayed at a hostel in Guatemala in May. Going from being fully isolated to sharing a room with strangers gave her pause. Konchinski, 31, opted for a private room.

“As anxious as I was, I really missed being around people, and I missed hearing stories about different normals than mine,” Konchinski said.

In June, Ellie Beargeon, a former member of the military accustomed to sharing a tent with some 40 other officers, stayed at a hostel in Denver on a road trip out West. Beargeon, 24, who is fully vaccinated, booked a bed in a 16-bed dorm that was at full capacity when she arrived.

But she felt uneasy, largely because of guests who flouted hostel rules. She canceled her next hostel reservation in Utah and camped instead.