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Youth Hostels in China Shutting Out Foreigners

writer: Christopher Cottrell source:

Youth hostels in China have long been relied on by independent travelers such as Chinese students and foreign backpackers seeking simple, affordable accommodations as they travel from province to province. For many years the cozy, quiet dorm rooms and laid-back lounges of a hostel were considered consecrated ground among young travelers and, as a rule, off-limits to commercial tourism. But no longer.

The other morning I was suddenly kicked out of my dorm room at a Shanghai-based hostel after the staff informed me that a large Chinese tour group had booked out all the rooms in advance of the Victory Day weekend. Out on the streets, many of the other youth hostels in Shanghai also told me that their rooms were all booked, and for the same reason: tour groups.

I was fortunate to finally find a room that holiday weekend at a mid-range hotel chain, but at 250 yuan ($39.25), that's three times the nightly rate of a hostel. Over the past summer I have come to depend on this particular hostel and its budget bunks while I await the delayed construction of my new apartment to start my new job.

But during this time, I noticed a growing trend of non-independent travelers taking over my hostel. Chinese grannies with toddlers in butt-less pants were seen sitting around the lobby, packs of noisy adolescents would climb on the billiard table in the bar, and every morning and afternoon a large number of middle-class Chinese would come and go en masse. Our hostel was being invaded by tour groups!

After chatting with the front desk, I was made aware of the reason why: Youth Hostels Association of China (YHA), the country's largest provider of budget travel accommodations, sold themselves out to Chinese third-party travel agents and booking websites popular with commercial tour groups. Due to the traditionally low rack-rate of hostels, YHA dorm rooms are now being bought out in bulk by these groups, many whom cater to family travelers from other provinces.

For me, this spells the end of what hostelling in China should be. Since the first youth hostel was founded in Germany in 1912, hostels have been meant to be sanctuaries for solo travelers seeking rest, relaxation and camaraderie with other independent travelers. To maintain this decorum, many hostels around the world have age limits as well as restrictions against groups. Even here in the PRC, where Chinese students prefer traveling together, the number is kept to a minimum of a few friends.

International hostels are also traditionally supposed to always have an open-door policy to foreign travelers. Basically, even at peak travel season a solo backpacker should be able to check in to any hostel anywhere at any time. And kicking out a hosteller from his bunk for someone else who "has a reservation" is simply unheard of in the international hostelling scene.

But due to YHA China's new profit-driven business model, it seems that the decades-old rules of hostelling are being thrown out - along with foreigners - in favor of Chinese tour groups.

I actually saw this same pattern in Macao, where I used to work, starting around 2007. Prior to the city's massive integrated resort boom, its traditional quarter was honeycombed with lovely Portuguese and Macanese pousadas (guest houses) catering to non-gaming travelers from around the world. Not anymore. Now that they have sold themselves out to travel agencies and online booking sites, these inns are constantly booked by gambling tourism groups from the mainland, and at much higher rates.

In recent years, China has become the world's largest source of outbound tourism, resulting in $550 billion in annual revenue for the international tourism industry. Domestic travel to the nation's numerous historic sites and cities have also seen a surge in middle-class Chinese travelers, most whom prefer to take packaged tours run by travel agencies due to the steep discounts offered.

While I'm very happy to see Chinese folks finally seeing more of the world and their own country, international youth hostels in China should remain off-limits to tour groups. Without the availability of these affordable dorm rooms, foreigners such as myself who don't have access to Chinese travel agents or online booking apps will literally be left out in the cold.