Fuelled by the passion to see the world, Krishna Mohan Menon started taking solo trips when he was 21 years old. That was in 2010. Bridled with the constraints of a student’s allowance, however, Menon’s finances soon began to run low. And that’s when he started seeking cheaper accommodation options. “Honestly, I was sick of paying for things I wasn’t going to use,” the 28-year-old, Chennai-based rural economist and avid backpacker tells Financial Express.
His first experience with such an accommodation came in 2012 when he landed in Varanasi and was guided to an ashram near the ghats by the locals. “It was my first time in north India and I wanted the most authentic local experience possible,” says Menon. At the ashram, he found three meals a day, a sharing room with two others—and, in his own words, “the greatest local
experience I had ever had”—at just Rs 350 a day.
Menon is not alone. There are many more like him who wish to travel, but on a budget. Couple this with the fact that India is seeing an increased influx of tourists, both domestic, as well as international—many of them budget-conscious travellers—and the issue of affordable accommodation becomes all the more significant.
As per a 2017 Union tourism ministry report, in fact, the country registered a 15% growth in foreign tourist arrivals from the previous year—around 56.74 lakh foreign tourists in 2017 compared with 49.03 lakh in 2016.
In such a scenario, cheaper accommodation options are the need of the hour if we have to successfully cater to this niche segment. And responding to the situation are a clutch of enterprises in the country, offering budget-conscious travellers the ‘revamped’ hostel experience. Gone are the unimaginative interiors and boring bunk beds. These new hostels offer a vibrant and colourful space for the millennial traveller, with amenities such as gaming and leisure areas, Wi-Fi, match screenings, music sessions, artists’ residency programmes and much more.
A new culture
There are several up-and-coming enterprises across the country that are actively contributing to the development of a ‘hostel culture for travellers’ in India. Take, for instance, The Lost Tribe Hostels, nestled in a village in Manali, Himachal Pradesh. Founded by travel enthusiasts and entrepreneurs Stuti Gupta, Alex Borges, Arjun Nadar and Pranay Gohi in 2015, The Lost Tribe Hostels offers affordable and cosy dormitories for backpackers in Jagatsukh village. Guests can avail a ‘capsule’ bed (beds separated by curtains in a capsule-like wooden structure) for Rs 350 per night, while a bunk bed can be booked for Rs 500 per night.
The founders, who are also friends, hatched the idea of The Lost Tribe Hostels in 2015 while vacationing in Goa. The idea was to create a community for travellers. A unique aspect of the hostel, however, is the focus on promoting art and artists by bringing cultural diversity and ideas under one roof. Recently, they organised an artists’ residency programme in collaboration with Platform for Artists (an India-based community of artists who specialise in creating interdisciplinary artwork). Christened ArtFest Mountains, the three-day immersive programme was put together with the help of locals. “Painters, performing artistes from Jaipur, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Gwalior, Pune, Ahmedabad, etc, conjoined their energies to share a new experience through their art,” says co-founder Stuti Gupta.
Over the course of the three days, the artists also participated in group activities such as yoga, games, etc, besides discussing and creating art for various social platforms. “The response from the creative minds was exactly what we needed… to encourage artists to drive awareness, connections and creativity across India,” says Kshitija Sarda, co-founder, Platform for Artists.
Then there is Gurugram-headquartered Zostel. Set up in 2013 by co-founders Akhil Malik, Dharmveer Singh Chouhan, Paavan Nanda, Tarun Tiwari, Chetan Singh Chauhan, Abhishek Bhutra and Siddharth Janghu, Zostel was started with the vision to promote travelling as a way of life. Claiming to be the country’s first chain of backpackers’ hostels, Zostel today is run by handpicked local entrepreneurs who own franchisees in as many as two dozen cities across the country, including Goa, Bir, Gokarna, Khajuraho, Leh, Pushkar, Spiti, Dalhousie, etc. As per Akshat Jain, business development head, Zostel, such facilities are desperately required in India to provide a safer, hygienic, budget-friendly and community-based experience to new-age travellers. Jain, who also handles the base operations from New Delhi, believes that ‘pocket-friendly’ student hostels are the answer to many a millennial’s backpacking woes.
The Zostel facility in the national capital is, in fact, the perfect example of such a space. Located in a crowded street in Paharganj, the Delhi Zostel is strategically placed near the New Delhi Railway station. The four-storeyed accommodation is spread over a spacious area and boasts of separate and mixed dormitories for men and women, twin sharing rooms, single rooms, a leisure/gaming area, dining area, etc. Abundantly equipped with bunk beds, bean bags, boardgames, Wi-Fi and a TV for screening matches, the place is every bit as welcoming and youth-friendly as they come. A bed in a regular dorm (sharing with six-eight people) would cost approximately Rs 349 per night, while the average cost for an AC room shared between four-eight people is around Rs 500 per night. Zostel also provides the option of a private room, with prices starting from Rs 999 on a per night basis.
The employees are also at hand to help guests with anything that they might require assistance with, be it booking tickets or arranging transport. To facilitate easier commute within the city, there is also a huge Delhi map strung across the leisure room, where guests can usually be seen exchanging notes on their travel experiences. One such guest is Mikhail Varshavski, a Russian tourist who has come to India for the first time. “I came alone. But here, I travel with so many,” says
the 23-year-old, who met and befriended three Brazilian tourists at Zostel. They now plan to travel together to south India.
Another popular budget-friendly hostel for backpackers is The Hosteller, which has branches across India and was founded by entrepreneur Pranav Dangi in 2014. It all started when Dangi was travelling as a student across Europe. While in Switzerland, he got stranded late at night in Geneva with no trains to take him back to his exchange college in Marseille, France. Left with no option but to stay back in Geneva for the night, Dangi found himself trudging to many hotels, but owing to his tight budget had to ultimately settle for a hostel. “All the hotels
were at least 15 times more expensive than the hostels,” reminisces Dangi, adding that after a prolonged search, he slept in a “super-clean and lively”
hostel, which even served him breakfast, making him stay back and explore the city for another day before heading back, having spent only 15 euros in all. “It made me contemplate a similar
situation in India and, after a bit of brainstorming, The Hosteller happened,” says Dangi, whose facility is present in places such as Kasol, Manali, Rishikesh and Delhi.
A bed in a twin sharing room at The Hosteller is priced at Rs 699 per night (prices are exempt of GST in an attempt to make the service viable for every kind of traveller). A regular bed in a dorm is priced at Rs 299 onwards on a per night basis. It offers all basic amenities, such as AC rooms, Wi-Fi, breakfast, female-only room options, lockers, etc. The focus, Dangi says, is on communal living and social travelling.
Filling the gaps
While travelling in India can be a sensory delight, many travellers have been known to share concerns over hygiene, safety issues, etc. These new hostels are attempting to plug these holes as well. “At The Hosteller, we aim to change the tainted reputation of hostels being dimly lit, unhygienic and unfit for living,” says Dangi, adding, “It’s the need of the hour for the government to act on parameters such as women’s safety, mistreatment of foreign travellers, etc.”
Abhishek Khandelwal, director, Moustache Hostel, which operates in six locations (Jaipur, Udaipur, Pushkar, Jaisalmer, Agra and Rishikesh) and mainly targets backpackers, feels that India is a late entrant in the alternative accommodation segment, but the response is slowly picking up. “The concept of hostels is settling in slowly with the younger generation… we see a lot of young travellers opting to stay at hostels rather than hotels or lodges,” says Khandelwal, adding that Moustache Hostel sees a footfall of more than 30,000 people annually across all its locations. “People of different nationalities stay with us… there is a high concentration of people coming from North America and western Europe though,” he says.
Zostel, which till recently received more male travellers than females ones, is slowly seeing change too. “We are happy to see the slow but steady rise in the number of female travellers in the past four years, as solo backpacking has picked up,” says Jain, adding that Zostel receives guests from all across Europe, Australia, the Netherlands, Israel, etc.
But what are these budget-conscious globetrotters seeking? As per The Hosteller’s Dangi, travellers in these times are looking majorly for three things: experiences, stories and offbeat adventures. “Overseas travellers coming to India are generally looking for a local authentic experience, which can be offered through curated city walks, etc, with the help of locals,” he says.
Jain of Zostel agrees. As per him, besides ticking off famous places and beautiful destinations, travellers want to experience the lives of people in different places. And this can only be achieved by stepping out of one’s comfort zone. A hostel is the perfect place to start.