As the coronavirus hysteria gripped the world in March, I was still staying in hostels, but was well aware that the future would change. I was in El Chalten, Patagonia, perhaps one of the most iconic backpacker havens in the entire world. There was even a statue in town dedicated to the countless backpackers that have visited the small town with a population of only 1,627. My shared dormitory had six beds, and one of the Europeans that had just arrived was coughing in his sleep. At that point, the Santa Cruz Province of Argentina had yet to report a single case, so I knew it was likely unfounded paranoia.
Only a few days later, the national parks shut down. The tiny bus station was filled to the brim with travelers trying to get out. My hostel, filled with eager adventurers the day before had become desolate. I spoke to the hostel receptionists, and they were just as devoid of answers as I was. I thought I could wait it out in this tiny town, but with winter approaching, everything was shutting down in the coming days regardless of the global pandemic. Within a few days, I went from the southernmost tips of the world back to the United States.
It’s been about four months since then. I had a feeling that it was a mistake to go back to the U.S., considering the sorry state of our government and complete lack of leadership, but I wanted to be with my family in case anything happened. My sister, a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, was sent home around the same time as me, and we spent two weeks quarantining in our parents’ basement. The meals that would be left for us on the staircase was the only thing to look forward to at the time. Not even our dogs were allowed downstairs to keep us company, just in case. Despite being out of work and a shut down of most of my revenue streams, I still consider myself lucky having a place to stay, and without worrying about survival.
Four months later, it still seems like there’s no end in sight.
The world of backpacking had such a bright future, and one that I hoped to see myself as some sort of an online pioneer for. Pushing people to travel and showing them that it doesn’t have to be expensive has always been my goal. The world of backpacking is incredible and welcoming, regardless of who you are. If you share a passion for adventure and an openness to new experiences, you were one of us.
It seems like every week, one of my favorite hostels shuts down. Some businesses that seemed invincible before have been forced to shut down. From my favorite co-working space in Bali to the place I spent two wild Full Moon Parties at, things are shutting down under the stranglehold that COVID has gripped the world in. It’s wiped out some of my favorite hostel chains, and I’ve seen some of the most successful hostels reaching out for help with their dying gasps.
An initiative called Adopt a Hostel has popped up recently, and it was heartbreaking to see just how many hostels were in need of help. I don’t think my love for travel would be the same if it weren’t for the first time I found myself in a hostel. Initially, I was just looking to save some money. I haven’t looked back since, realizing that the small sacrifice of privacy was worth the lifelong memories and friendships one could make at a hostel. You’re telling me you can pay $10 a night and actually have a better time traveling than staying at some boujee 5-star resort? Count me in.
My mind goes back to that night in El Chalten, where the coughing European filled my head with paranoia.
I’ve stayed at hostels with up to 100 beds before, like The Tent in Munich, where they literally threw 50 bunk beds under one gigantic tarp. I’ve even had to share a bed once in a 40-bed bunk in Koh Phangan. Let’s be honest, it was the Full Moon Party so I likely would have shared a bed whether or not I had to.
But how will those sleeping arrangements fly in a world following Coronavirus? Without an end in sight, many hostels have had to shut down entirely. Even if the world were to magically find a vaccine and open back up tomorrow, who would want to stay in a hostel? Travel seems like it will return to being a privilege of the rich. Hostels have done so much in making travel accessible to people of all backgrounds, and COVID has dealt an irreparable and irreversible blow to this blossoming industry.
As I’ve grown my following on social media, I’ve never once considered abandoning my roots as a backpacker. Sure, I’ve got the audience where I could start flexing 5-star resorts and hotels on Instagram, but I don’t want to. Hostels have always been more fun, more welcoming, and much more real. I work almost exclusively with hostels while I’m traveling, despite knowing that I’m underpaid for the majority of the work that I do.
But hey, if I can get a free bed and help grow the hostel scene to make travel more accessible for everyone, why wouldn’t I? If the backpacker community wins, we all win.
It also has me reconsidering my future as a travel blogger.
Or at least the niche that I’ve found myself in.
I want to tell myself that if the backpacking world goes down, then I’ll gladly go down with it. I’m stubborn like that, but even I’m not stubborn enough to see that the future of backpacking is in a bad place right now. Between complimentary accommodation and being a Hostelworld affiliate, my living expenses were minimal while traveling. I’ve never been money-hungry, having enough to get by and see the world was more than enough for me.
But without travel and backpacking, I’m also against the ropes. Hostels are against the ropes. Backpackers are against the ropes. And it might be years before the backpacking world bounces back and starts growing again. It completely sucks, as any article from pre-Coronavirus will tell you that the hostel industry was experiencing a major boom.
Now, dorm beds are empty. Hostel receptionists sit at their desks, awaiting guests that never come. Hostels around the world are being forced to shut down.
As countries re-open, backpackers are far from their target market.
Cambodia requires a $3,000 deposit for all travelers, as a cash advance in case they catch Coronavirus and die. Sure, you’ll get most of the money back when you leave, but what backpacker has $3,000 lying around?
Thailand, a backpacker haven, plans to open up again. However, they are targeting wealthy travelers only. And who can blame them? If one luxury traveler spends as much money as 20 backpackers, then it’s the clear preference. Limiting the amount of travelers means that budget travelers will get pushed to the back of the line.
Even if backpackers are allowed to travel again, will the hostel experience be the same? In the midst of coronavirus, would travelers really be willing to risk staying in a room with 10+ other strangers, especially if they don’t know where those strangers have been? Hostels will also likely be bumping up their prices and operating at half-capacity or lower. If a hostel is charging twice the price, then doesn’t a similarly-priced Airbnb or a cheap hotel seem life a safer choice?
And what about quarantine periods?
If you have two months to travel, let’s say in South East Asia, you can easily visit Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. But what if Thailand requires a 2-week quarantine period? You’ll have to cut out one of those countries at the very least, likely Laos, already one of the most overlooked countries in South East Asia. A country like Uzbekistan, recently experiencing a tourism boom, is begging travelers to come back by offering a COVID-free guarantee of $3,000. If you get COVID while visiting, they’ll straight up give you $3,000.
Even countries that have excelled at keeping Coronavirus contained have struggled mightily. Queenstown in New Zealand, a popular destination among backpackers, has seen crushing blows to its tourism industry. Hostels have never been particularly profitable to begin with, and the hostel owner in that BBC article cites 71% capacity as their break even point. I’d imagine hostels won’t even be allowing past half-capacity post-Coronavirus.
From my experience of working with hostels all over the world, the owners have a genuine passion for travel. Setting up shop in their happy place and then welcoming travelers from all over the world? That seems like a dream gig. I mean I’ve thought about it plenty of times, and not once has the thought of doing it to get rich ever crossed my mind. Hostel owners, staff, and volunteers genuinely love travel, and do everything they can to foster that love for the newer generation of backpackers to cross into their properties.
The travel industry that seemed to be stable and growing is now akin to the Wild West. No one actually knows what they’re doing. In the grand scheme of things, the last four months is just the first drop in the massive ripple that Coronavirus will leave on the world. The travel industry will be as uneven as ever. Countries with established tourism industries will recover much faster than those without. Wealthy travelers will be the first ones back on their extravagant holidays, if they’ve ever even left. Those travelers will almost entirely ignore hostels.
There are a lot of questions and very few answers right now. Worst of all, it doesn’t seem like things will get any better any time soon. I have no intentions of traveling internationally in the near future, and even if I did, U.S. citizens have become lepers to the rest of the world. It’ll be a while before we get welcomed again.