Backpacker hostels and coronavirus (COVID-19): Lonely guests adjust to new normal

A dream trip backpacking around Australia has not quite turned out how Dutch tourist Sietse Peer imagined.

The 26-year-old arrived here in February, just before the world changed and the borders were sealed. Now Mr Peer has a four-person dorm room all to himself at the YHA hostel in The Rocks in Sydney.

The pandemic has thrown his working holiday plans into chaos, but he's looking on the bright side.

"I've actually liked the fact there's not too many people in the city, not too many tourists everywhere you go. It's been really quiet and nice," he said.

German backpacker Jelena Karanovic, 22, is having a slightly different experience after finding herself trapped in Melbourne during lockdown 2.0.

She arrived in January, excited to be Down Under and with plans to stay at least a year and maybe two.

"I never expected to be stuck in a country during a pandemic," Ms Karanovic said.

She said the hostel experience has changed with many tourists returning home. When she first arrived in Melbourne there was a group of 30 people who became friends. Just five remain.

"Now it's really sad when the hostel is empty. I'm not here to be by myself and be completely alone, I'm here to meet people," Ms Karanovic said.

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"It's lonely compared to before. But I still try to stay positive, looking forward [and] trying to save my money and hope it's getting better."

For youth hostels, the pandemic represents a major threat to a business model that relies on foreign backpackers for the bulk of revenue.

YHA Australia chief executive Paul McGrath said 51 of his 70 hostels around Australia temporarily closed during lockdown, although most have now reopened.

"Seventy per cent of our business was international holidaymakers or backpackers and we no longer have that business for the foreseeable future."

Once the borders closed YHA went into "hibernation mode" and totally relied on JobKeeper. "That's the only way we're able to survive," Mr McGrath said.

He flagged a shift to attracting families, school groups and corporate travellers to replace some of the lost foreign guests he doesn't expect to return for at least 12 months.

"I think it's made us look to reinvent ourselves. What else could we be? What else could we do?"

Hostels have reduced the capacity of dorm rooms and implemented strict cleaning procedures. But for an industry whose value proposition is shared communal living, social distancing becoming permanent presents a long-term challenge.

"Having a six- or eight-person dorm [room], that may be challenged for the future. It will probably change the nature of traditional backpackers," Mr McGrath said.

But he's confident backpackers will return when borders reopen.

"The hostel magic is not created in the rooms as such, it's actually created in the common areas. That's our point of difference."

Simon Westaway is executive director of the Australian Tourism Industry Council and says the hostel industry will be forced to adapt to survive.

"Those businesses will have to position themselves around the Australian market," Mr Westaway said. "Accommodation is accommodation so it's just how hard they work to promote that with Australian travellers."

Despite a less than ideal start to his gap year, Dutch backpacker Mr Peer has no regrets about coming here – especially when he sees the news from back home.

"It's just my mum is a bit worried because of this whole virus situation but that's just what mums do and we just have to call them and say we're fine," he said.

"She kind of hinted at me, 'Are you sure you don't want to come back?' It didn't make sense because the situation in the Netherlands was much worse than here."

Mr Peer saved up for his trip so he's got enough money for now, but he's hoping to find some employment soon. He's not sure how long to stay but isn't ruling out a second year if things improve.

"My friends told me there's not much happening back home anyway. There's not much sense going home if it's worse than here," he said.

He does concede though that he's glad not to be trapped in Melbourne right now.

"That would be bad because then my mum would probably be really worried," he laughs.

While hostels might change forever if social distancing is here to stay, Mr Peer doesn't think that will dissuade anyone from travelling.

"I don't think people go travelling for the whole hostel thing, it's just to see nice places and go to different places. I don't think less people will be willing to travel [if hostels change]."

"In a few years when all this is over people will just forget and go back to what they used to do. I don't think the whole corona crisis will have long-term effects on the way people travel."

After weeks of searching for work, German backpacker Ms Karanovic has "finally" found a job.

"It's not what I expected, it's a cleaning job but it's better than nothing," she said.

And despite being in lockdown in Melbourne, she's not really homesick.

"Sure I miss my friends and family back home [but] I really like Australia and enjoy it here. It's just at the moment it's not so good ... but I don't want to give up. I know it's going to be better."

See also: Aussie expats hit with reverse culture shock after returning home

See also: Come here for a year, bring your laptop, and 'forget about coronavirus'

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