Behind the teal clapboards at 8 Gower St. in St. John’s, hostel owner David Barron is busy preparing for his first visitors since before the pandemic. It’s been a while, and the historic house needs a paint job.
“It’s been a rough year,” Mr. Barron said. “We didn’t expect to open up until next spring – but the vaccine rollout has been good and regulations are changing.”
Hostels are known for offering cheap dorm-style accommodation. Usually boisterous, and sometimes in possession of their own bars, they aim to spur social interaction, especially among young solo travellers. Many hostels offer shared bedrooms, sometimes packing as many as 12 people into single, fiercely bunk-bedded rooms.
Though some hostels stayed open throughout the pandemic, they saw their bookings dwindle last year, right before the typically busy summer season. Even domestic travellers stayed away.
Now, as provinces ease out of restrictions and with international borders set to reopen, some hostel owners say they are seeing unexpectedly high levels of interest in their rooms, even as case counts rise in many parts of the country.
Even though Mr. Barron’s Aug. 15 reopening at 50 per cent capacity is happening on short notice, he said he already has bookings for this month.
“It’s not going to be like a normal year, but after being locked down for 16 months, I think people want to get out. They want to explore,” he said. His hostel, located on one of the oldest streets in St. John’s, usually draws tourists from around the world.
Provincial requirements differ, but in Newfoundland visitors will have to prove that they are fully vaccinated or self-isolate until they test negative for COVID-19 before staying at a hostel with shared facilities. Some hostels are only offering private rooms, and others are installing curtains around beds in dorms for extra protection. Visitors might be asked to wear masks in shared spaces, but not while sleeping in their dorm rooms.
“More than 70 per cent of our 50 hostels in Canada are now open,” said Shelbey Sy, director of marketing at Hostelling International (HI) Canada, the largest hostel operator in the country. The HI Ottawa Jail Hostel, HI Whistler (formerly part of the 2010 Olympic village) and the historic HI-Québec City Hostel, all under the organization’s umbrella, are having a busier-than-expected summer, she said. She attributes this to the demographics hostels cater to.
“We’ve seen this across many other kinds of downturns. We fare well because our market is young, independent, and a bit more risk averse,” Ms. Sy said. “They’re very resilient.”
Domestic travellers are making up a larger proportion of hostel guests than usual, said Marie-Pierre Boissonnault, manager of Canmore Downtown Hostel in Canmore, Alta.
“Canadians who would normally go to Europe or down south, or who have been postponing their Canadian Rockies trips forever, are all coming here now. Québécois people are coming to Alberta, and lots of Ontarians as well,” Ms. Boissonnault said.
Between closing off shared rooms and booking fewer guests to ensure adequate space in common rooms, she estimates her hostel is at about 35 per cent capacity, up from 15 per cent last year and compared to 90 per cent in normal times.
Even though case counts are rising in Alberta among the unvaccinated, Ms. Boissonnault saw a bump in bookings after July 1, when the province moved into Stage 3 of its reopening plan and relaxed indoor mask requirements.
While hostels outside of major city centres are seeing bookings flood in, that’s not the case for some urban hostels. Anthony Aarts, the owner of the 115-bed Planet Traveler Hostel in Toronto, said he has yet to open.
“Everybody’s leaving Toronto, just to get out of the city. But for hostels in the urban centres, which draw the international travellers, it’s a different perspective altogether,” Mr. Aarts said.
Before the pandemic, he said, 90 per cent of his business came from international travellers. In mid-July, the federal government announced plans to allow inbound travel by fully-vaccinated Americans on Aug. 9 and other international travellers on Sept. 7. Some bookings, Mr. Aarts said, are starting to accumulate – though he will need to reach 40 per cent capacity just to pay the bills.
Ms. Boissonnault is hoping the border reopening will extend her busy season into the fall.
“Normally, October tends to be very quiet and November is dead. This year, I’m hoping that October will be similar to a normal September, as Americans will come in to see the mountains,” she said. “If not, I’m confident about the Christmas and New Year season. I think it’s going to fill in.”
While business may not yet be back to normal, Ms. Boissonnault is just happy to welcome visitors back to Canmore.
“They come in, we talk to them and smile, and they smile back. It’s like, ‘Wow. Hadn’t seen that in a while.’”
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