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.