Hostels, Backpackers and Trains- A future for tourism Upstate?

The state of hostelling and backpacking in America:

Today on CNN, I read an article entitled “US Hostels struggle to live up to European Counterparts;” the gist of the article was that European hostel culture, emphasizing community, interaction and the backpacking lifestyle has never taken hold in the United State. To quote:

“Wander through any major European city and you're bound to stumble upon dozens of hostels, their doorways crowded with rucksacks and chatting, laughing backpackers. The cheap, dormitory-style lodging and lively social scene are fixtures for European travelers on a budget…

But they've never quite caught on across the Atlantic. Numbering about 10,000 worldwide, there are only about 350 hostels in the United States, according to Hostelling International-USA. The few available suffer from a lukewarm reputation, a transportation system that doesn't favor backpackers and -- perhaps the most fatal flaw -- anonymity.

The representative of Hostelling International (HI) sums up the hostel culture: “the whole idea of internationalism and achieving peace through travel.” In America, however, it seems that hostels only represent the cheapest of indoor accommodation. One of the key components of hostelling is effective mass transit, especially passenger trains, which is sorely lacking throughout the United States.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t hostel users in the USA, the article continues: “David Capelle, who owns a hostel-booking Web site on which travelers can post ratings and reviews, said 40 percent of people who use Hostelz.com live in the U.S. -- but only 9 percent of them book American hostels. ‘There really aren't, as far as I've seen, any truly great hostels in the U.S.’ says Capelle”

This pattern is continued in Upstate New York. There are only a handful of true hostels even in existence in the state, one in Syracuse, one in Buffalo and one in Niagara Falls (the Canadian side has four, from what I can see); the hostel booking sites are puffed up with a few listings for bed-and-breakfasts, campgrounds, yurt rentals and communes that let out beds.

The Potential for Backpack Tourism in Upstate New York

Despite our dearth of hostels and absolute neglect of backpack tourism in the region (though we’re not alone… does anywhere in the US truly cater to backpackers like European sites do?), there is true potential for this style of tourism in our region.

Recently, I met a young Russian woman who was working in the Adirondack Park for the summer. We were discussing her plans for afterwards when she was hoping to travel. She told me she was going to go to Westport and catch the train to NYC and Niagara Falls. That was when lightening struck.

Upstate New York sits between three of the greatest attractions for backpackers in America: New York City, Montreal and Niagara Falls. Amtrak trains run right through the heart of the state- Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Utica, Geneva, Lake Champlain- ferrying unknown numbers of young travelers, both domestic and foreign everyday through our region. Furthermore, the Finger Lakes Railway has passenger lines to Syracuse (Solvay), Canandaigua, Geneva, Camillus, Skaneateles, Sennet, Auburn, Aurelius, Seneca Falls, Waterloo, Phelps Junction, Clifton Spring, Penn Yan and Watkins Glen, giving potential for a deeper penetration into the state via train.

There is a tremendous potential here to siphon off some of these visitors into the region. Attractions they might be willing to stop for include: the Finger Lakes wine country, the comparatively cheap bars, clubs, food and accommodation (this is a huge draw), our fall foliage and the natural wonders of the Adirondacks and Catskills (not to mention smaller parks near the trains like Green Lakes or Letchworth). American travelers might be interested by the region’s important contributions to history, such as in the area of Women’s Rights, Abolitionism, Mormonism, etc. Let’s not forget racing at Watkins Glen or Saratoga.

Why is backpack tourism desirable?

There are several reasons why Upstate might desire to cultivate a reputation as friendly to backpackers. The simplest is that few areas of the country do this today and so there is an untapped market; backpackers are always looking for new, cheap, “untouched” areas to travel to and word gets around quickly.

The second reason is that they require comparatively little infrastructure compared to other tourists. They don’t ride in big coaches, need 5-star hotels or fancy resorts. Many of them might think that our abandoned factories are “picturesque.” Backpacker hostels often revitalize historic buildings that would otherwise be left behind and are necessarily located within walking distance of transportation hubs (thus within the blighted inner cores of our cities that need the most help). Backpackers, especially foreign ones, do not build second homes, which would mean that they would be far less painful to strained areas like the Adirondacks and the Hudson Valley. The fact that there is little need for infrastructure means that we (1) wouldn’t have to put in money we don’t have and (2) would lose less if we failed.

Let’s face it: many of our cities are run-down and poor. Mainstream tourism requires a form of scrupulous cleanliness that is simply too expensive for our cities. Backpack tourism, which revels in quirkiness and a lack of perfection, is far more suited to our reality. Besides, mainstream tourism entails huge hotels and an endless parade of busses that has the effect of homogenizing affected areas, destroying local communities and uniqueness. We want to bring in a few extra dollars, not destroy what we love about our home towns by prostituting them to the all-mighty tourist dollar. Even if Cancun were possible here, who would actually want to live in a town like that?

Backpackers provide outside revenues for several areas that Upstate ought to be looking to develop: youth entertainment and mass transportation. Backpackers would give extra business to nightclubs, museums, bars, youth-oriented restaurants and cafes, allowing more of them to develop. As a spillover effect, youth life would be improved for locals as well, giving incentive for young people to remain in the region, or to return. Mass transportation is the way of the future, with rising gas prices and all. Backpack tourism helps to bring early revenue into mass transportation systems, for instance, train lines developed between Upstate cities to bring in backpackers would just as easily serve traveling locals.

Finally, backpackers bring the exotic and different into our proximity. Exposure to difference has a tendency to lead to more understanding and acceptance. Our country has a tendency towards isolationism and arrogance that might be mitigated, at least in a small way around here, by the introduction of foreign tourists. There would be economic reasons to educate our children in other languages and understand other cultures. We would have meaningful exchanges with people carrying different ideas and values.

What do we need to do?

The most important thing to do is to organize ourselves and announce that we want backpackers here. Perhaps promoting the idea of an “Upstate Corridor” from Albany to Buffalo and advertising sights and events along the way would help. Tourist information centers and advertising on backpacker websites and guidebooks is an absolute must. The ease of train transportation and the types of beautiful and interesting (and cheap!) sites they will see could also be emphasized.

There are some infrastructure needs that must be improved for backpackers to arrive. Firstly, we must have train and bus stations equipped to handle foreign travelers (with multi-lingual signs, for example) and possessing quality tourist information booths. Some train stations might need complete renovation, but this has a spill-over effect for locals as well. There is a desperate need for more hostels and hostels of better quality; as I mentioned above hostels are great for renovating decaying buildings and turning them to good use, so perhaps they might be integrated into plans for sustainable renewal. We certainly have enough bars and restaurants, but currently, they are not organized to advertise themselves to this type of traveler. That would probably change as people became aware of the potential.

There has to be some thought put into how these young folks will get from point A to point B. We say “wouldn’t it be great if backpackers between Montreal and NYC stopped in the Adirondacks for some ‘real’ backpacking?” Well, we have to figure out how (minibus tour companies?) they will get from the Westport train station to Lake Placid or the High Peaks. If we want them to come to Letchworth from Rochester, busses and accommodation must be thought out. This of course doesn’t need to be done by some overarching governmental agency and much of it will emerge naturally as people locally become aware of the opportunities presented.

Beyond these simple tasks, the only other things I think we could do is to put on a few more Spiedies and cross our fingers. I don’t know of any area that has ever attempted to bring in backpackers on a large scale, usually backpackers discover a place, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying. Up here north of the Rockland-Orange county borders, we need to start thinking of some new ideas. “Something’s got to give,” and perhaps it is time that we consider those options that utilize the unique and beautiful things in our communities without destroying them. I believe, quite strongly, that backpack tourism is an option for partial economic recovery that is pollution-free, opens our minds to new ideas, improves our transport system, doesn’t require large expenditures to build up and might help to give the social foundation that will bring our own young people back from North Carolina and Virginia, or at least staunch the artery wound flowing south.

-by Jesse


TourPro said...

If there is no profit motive, nobody will bother.

NYCO said...

Great post Jesse! I'm thinking about this subject too right now, because my dad is on a trip across the U.S. on his motorcycle, and camping his way across the country, so basically he's a backpacker on two wheels.

Natalie said...

There's an obvious profit motive here, tourists spend money, and local businesses would be the ones who would stand to flourish. Not to mention the slightly more intangible but nonetheless crucial impact it would have on the quality of our cities and towns (which would be overwhelmingly positive in my estimation) I think Jesse makes the point that this could be done with minimal expenditure on the part of interested parties (towns? boards of tourism? private organizations?) The difficult part would be spurring similar thinking statewide across a variety of businesses (transportation, local attractions, food, etc etc) It's worth thinking about, right? There have been crazier ideas (biggest mall in the universe powered by green energy sources with a huge aquarium? )

TourPro said...

I guess my theory is that this particular strata of tourists and accompanying services only result from either destinations with highly evolved tourism infrastructures or those that have none - rarely in between. Typically, macro-destinations which enjoy this type of traffic also have very well-developed transportation systems which we do not have in the US.

The idea that a bunch of small entrepreneurs catering to this very small and not-very-profitable market segment could instigate institutional change is noble, but unrealistic. Personally, I don't see the "obvious" profit motive.

Jon said...

This post really stirs up a lot of important ideas. First of all, its not true that the US has no great hostels. Yes, we're far behind Europe, but we have some great hostel here in the US. Green Tortoise runs an awesome hostel in San Francisco and also has alternative vacation packages including two cross country road trips. I stayed in an awesome hostel in Charleston, South Carolina (cleverly called the NotSoHostel). I payed $38.00 a night for a private room that had access to a shared kitchen. And recently Buffalo's hostel (on Main St. near W. Tupper, across from the Studio Arena Theatre) was recently rated the best in North America ! See here for the link: http://www.buffalorising.com/city/archives/2006/02/downtown_buffalo_youth_ho.php

Now, that said, we're still far behind Europe. I think it would fair to estimate that millions of foreign travelers move from NY's two biggest tourist attractions each season, NYC and Niagara Falls. The question is how to get them off the train or tour bus or out of the rental car and into Upstate for a few days instead of making a bee line through it? I think the smartest way to do that is to focus on one area/attraction and try to build infrastructure around it for such a purpose. The easiest place that comes to mind is the Ithaca/Cayuga wine region. With some stepped up marketing this region could tap in the European love for wine and make itself known in the same way "Sonoma" is known. I'm surprised Ithaca doesn't have a hostel, but that would be the most logical place to look to establish a place that younger travelers could call home base for awhile as they explore the geographical and gastronomical wonders of the area.

Jesse said...

The important point that I want to emphasize about these tourists is the fact that they are already here... unknown thousands of them pass right by us every day between NYC and Niagara Falls... I have met people in the Russian Far East, rural Turkey and Spanish bars who desire to visit New York City and Niagara Falls, I know because they tell me about it whenever I mention where I'm from. Granted, most will never make it here, but thousands still do.

It is true that areas where backpacking flourishes tend, and let me emphasize that word, tend to be places with well-developed transportation systems... but not necessarily. For instance, in central Anatolia (Turkey) is an area called "Cappadocia" which is directly serviced by no trains and no planes, but because of its natural beauty and the fact that it has oriented itself to backpack tourism, attracts hundreds if not thousands of young people daily. For me to get to Cappadocia, I was actually dropped off on the side of the highway by a local bus some ten miles from the edge of the region at dawn and had to work my way in from there.

The train system serving the old Erie Canal corridor is more than sufficient to bring tourists into Syracuse, Albany, Rochester, Utica, Geneva and Candandaigua. The NYC-Montreal route already serves to bring backpackers into Lake Placid... despite the fact that there is no train directly there.

The fact is, no region in the United States has a public transportation system comparable to even that of poorer European countries like Spain, Italy or Turkey. However, NYC comes the closest to any and we live at the periphery of that system. Trains do snake out from NY and we can profit off of that. The backpack tourists already come and more will come if they knew that there was the infrastructure to support them.

Backpack tourism is not as low-profit as one might suspect. While it is true that backpackers do not tend to spend as much as "traditional" tourists, they also do not require as much overhead to bring in or to entertain. Backpackers have revitalized entire neighborhoods and towns in Europe, and done so without obliterating them in the way that bus-group tourism does.

The final "profit" that needs to be mentioned does not boil down to dollars and cents... and thus would probably not appeal to an entrepreneur like yourself. What I am talking about is the improvement of youth culture, the appearence of clubs, bars, restaurants and entertainment. Our cities languish from the lack of youthful vitality as our young people are being sucked inexorably (it appears) to North Carolina, Virginia and similar places. Without them, our communities have no future. One of the largest reasons they leave (after a lack of jobs) is a lack of interesting things to do in our cities. This fact alone might have not business owners, but people in general who truly care about their towns interested in backpack tourism.

Busses of old, overweight folks from places like Kansas who drive around looking at our leaves and eating at our all-you-can-eat buffets might bring some cash in*, but leave nothing but soulless corporate steakhouse/buffets and huge ugly hotels in their wake. Besides, most of your elderly bus travellers spend little, purchasing only a few postcards. The same number of backpackers rely upon local transportation (improving it for all of us with the profits from their patronage) and patronize small-scale, locally owned hotels, restuarants, bars and hostels (which keeps the money circulating locally instead of being shipped off to the corporate HQ). Because they don't come in groups, they don't get group rates and they buy just as many souveneirs as the bus groups.

In the end, it appears to me that there is a strong "profit" motive, both for those who make their livelihood from tourism and for the communities who would develop it. We're trying to find ways here in Upstate to bring our communities back together, to keep our kids local and to protect our heritage... backpack tourism might be an alternative worth exploring.

*Trust me- I've worked in both all-you-can-eat buffets and given tours to countless bus groups. Certainly, not every bus group is the same and not every person in a bus group is this way... but in my experience the majority are.

Journey said...

And you say you're not a scientist?

pigeon said...

Is anyone else interested in this "upstate corridor" for backpackers and cyclists? I live along the erie canal and would be very interested in doing whatever to help out with this cause.

pigeon said...

Is anyone else interested in this "upstate corridor" for backpackers and cyclists? I live along the erie canal and would be very interested in doing whatever to help out with this cause.

Anonymous said...

This place is one of the best to spend my Christmas vacation together with my family and children. Thanks for sharing this!

Hostels Buenos Aires