The (surprisingly long) history of hostels

About hostels
Updated on 29 Nov 2019

Hostels are ubiquitous today. They can be found in every city where tourists and locals flock to see the beauty of nature or experience a unique culture. However, they’re a relatively new invention.

The first hostel dates back to 1909 in Germany. Richard Schirmann, a teacher, felt the need for an affordable place to stay for his students while they’re on short vacations. Also, he wanted them to experience things that were not typically taught in school. So, in 1912, he opened the first hostel, which was located in the Altena Castle in Germany. He made it a point that students learn how to do household chores by letting them help in cleaning and cooking. The hostel was also affordable because they sleep together in a dorm room, so they saved money. Fun fact, the hostel is still operational to this day!

How Hostels Began

After The Birth (1913 – 1934)

Since Schirmann opened the first youth hostel, it inspired a new trend in Germany. A lot of hiking and recreation clubs created their permanent hostels to cater to their wealthy patrons and the residents of the local community. At the beginning of 1932, Germany already had more or less 2000 youth hostels that had 4.5 million overnight stays per year.

In other parts of Europe, like Switzerland, the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Belgium, France, and Denmark, more than 600 hostels were founded, and the movement was in full swing. To help promote the campaign even further, each country created their national hosteling associations. It culminated in 1932 in Amsterdam when the associations launched an international summit to develop common standards to improve service. So, the International Youth Hostel Federation was created.

In 1933, the idea spread to the New World when Isabel and Monroe Smith joined the second international meeting. They found the first American youth hostel in Northfield, Massachusetts, shortly afterward in 1934. Since then, the American Youth Hostels organization was formed to help promote the trend in the country.

The 1930s and World War II (1935 – 1945)

After about a year of the foundation of the American Youth Hostels association, it already had around 30 hostels spread throughout New England. These hostels were marketed towards cyclists and outdoor enthusiasts, and they received a lot of publicity when even the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted them. In 1936, FDR was made the honorary president of the American Youth Hostels, and he famously remarked that hostels are “far better than schools” and that they give “the best education (he’s) ever had.”

In the years leading to the war, the political turmoil in Europe was closely watched by everyone. Due to the unrest, a lot of hostels were either closed or nationalized by governments so they can be used for the war effort. Several national hosteling associations in Europe suspended their activities because of the chaos.

During the height of the war, the growth of the hosteling trend stagnated. Although there was still some European association which continued to operate, much of the increase happened elsewhere in Canada and the US.

After the War: Renewal (1946 – 1965)

The end of World War II triggered a wave of reconstruction and thought-provoking reflections around the world. A lot of American youth travelled to Europe to help in the effort to rebuild hostels. Back then, international youth travel, even though it was still growing, was championed by countries as a way to promote a deeper bond between all people. They hope that this understanding will help prevent another outbreak of war.

The leading organization of hostels, the International Youth Hostel Federation, grew in size as countries in Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America joined the movement. They formed associations in their countries that were patterned after the German youth hostel system. Meanwhile, in the US, John D. Rockefeller III served as the president of the AYH. He saw the need for hostels, and he incorporated the association as a non-profit in 1949.

In the 1950s, the hosteling movement experienced a boom with a clear focus on rural bicycle vacation spots. So, in 1954, the first hostel owned by an association was founded in Indiana. The growth was credited to the rise of airline travel to Europe because it became more accessible for a lot of people.

The Rise of Urban Hostels (1966 – 1980)

During the 60s and 70s, hosteling flourished because of the growing economy, the introduction of airline travel, and the coming-of-age of the “Baby Boomer” generation. In this time, travel was much more accessible, and the public’s awareness of hostels became more widespread.

In 1961, the trend of setting up nationally owned facilities started with the opening of the first hostel in 1961. It was also the time when the organization promoted international travel and exchange, and inner-city programs were started to cater to the marginalized youth.

With the celebration of the 200th foundation anniversary of the US, the AYH developed the first major urban hostel in Washington, DC. In 1969, the project gained the support of politicians and celebrities like Loretta Young. When it opened, the Washington, DC hostel exceeded all expectations, and it triggered the shift towards opening more urban hostels in city centers.

Evolution (1980 – 2000)

The 1980s began with the opening of the first large urban hostel in San Francisco. By the end of the decade, several urban hostels were opened in cities such as Boston, Miami, Santa Monica, and Seattle, among others. This growth continued throughout the next decade as bigger hostels were established in Chicago, New York City, Orlando, San Diego, and San Francisco. In 1994, the AYH developed a bold plan to realize its goal of creating hostels in every major city and offer its program nationwide.

On the international scene, the International Youth Hostel Federation lead the movement to growth throughout the 1990s with the creation and adoption of new standards to maintain the hostels’ quality. They also renamed themselves to “Hostelling International” along with a new logo.

The 21st Century: Disaster and Rebirth (2001 – Present)

The new century was marked by the tragedy of 9/11 that shocked the US and the whole world. As a result, global travel experienced a sharp decline, and it went further with the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2004.

With the dwindling number of people who were traveling, overnight stays and program participation also experienced a sharp decline. It resulted in a short but significant financial burden on HI-USA. Due to the challenges, a growing number of people became more determined to promote the role of hosteling in the global scene. So, HI-USA created programs such as “Opening Doors, Opening Minds” and the promotion of more extensive cultural exchange in 2002. Hostelling International also started its program called “Youth Hostelling for Peace and Understanding” to perform its responsibility of starting the intercultural dialogue and to promote peace.

Today, more than 50 hostels are operating in the US, which serves more than 1 million overnight stays annually. Throughout the world, there are over 4000 hostels that recorded more or less 33 million overnight stays spread in 80 countries.

A full timeline

1909: Richard Schirmann created a hostel for his students.

1912: Schirmann opened the first youth hostel in Altena, Westphalia, which was replaced with a permanent hostel in the Altena Castle.

1919: The movement spread to other European countries, and Schirmann founded the German Youth Hostel Association.

1932: The Internation Youth Hostel Federation was founded, and Schirmann was appointed as the president. Membership cards were also developed.

1936: Schirmann was forced to step down by the German government.

1947: UNESCO awarded the Federation consultative status.

The 1950s: Awarded with observer status in the UN. The movement spread to Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

1952: International standards were adopted.

1977: Global overnights reached 500 million a year.

The 1980s: The international organization collaborated to reach new markets. Environmental standards were adopted.

1997: Over 1 billion overnights were reached.

2000: Introduction of a new booking system and the promotion of peace and international understanding.

2006: The organization renamed itself to Hostelling International

2008: The network reached over 1.5 billion overnights.

2009: The centennial anniversary of the global network.

2010: Adoption of sustainable tourism practices.

2018: Started the ban or minimal use of single-use plastics in all HI-affiliated hostels.

The Future

In 2010, a law that regulated short-term rentals in multiple dwellings virtually wiped out the budget hostels in New York City. It was a significant blow to hostels that were preferred by younger tourists, those who are looking for budget accommodation, and those who seek communal lodgings. However, with the introduction of a new bill, reintroduce hostels and help the city fight illegal Airbnb rentals. The illegal accommodations offered by Airbnb are said to be the culprit of the city’s affordable housing crisis.

In Europe, the appeal of hostels is expected to continue to grow even with the rise of Airbnb and higher disposable income. It is attributed to the unaltered mindset of Europeans that they should get a better value for money while traveling. Traditional branded hotels can not offer this value, and it has seen a resurgence with the rise of Airbnb.

Although Airbnb was at first seen as a competitor for hostels, it has helped them to tap into the younger generation who wants to experience the shared travel experience. So, several hostels are already using the service to promote the “local” experience and the introduction of boutique hostels offered by cities. The trend is expected to continue to grow in the next decade.

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