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Money can buy social distance. But where does that leave budget travelers?

From isolated villas to private jets, the wealthy have found ways to travel during a pandemic. But for backpackers and hostel enthusiasts, it’s not as simple.


(iStock; Washington Post illustration/Washington Post illustration)

No one books a bed in a hostel for peace, quiet or privacy. Shared dorms, communal kitchens and affordable group activities organized by a front desk doubling as a bar encourage social interaction on the cheap. It’s a solo backpacker’s dream, light on the wallet and designed to make it easy to meet other travelers. It’s also a novel coronavirus nightmare.

Early on in the pandemic’s spread, it became clear that the close quarters enjoyed by budget travelers could lead to rapid transmission. In the popular backpacker outpost of Bondi Beach in the Australian state of New South Wales, a March outbreak was traced to several hostel parties, with the state administrators going so far as to issue a warning to be wary of “infected backpackers,” according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Elsewhere, the budget beach haven of Goa, on India’s western coast, reopened to travelers in early July. Two weeks later, it went into lockdown again after a surge in cases.

Travel is affordable when people are grouped together; it’s why the budget traveler chooses to fly in the back of the plane, take the bus instead of renting a car, spend the night in a shared dorm. But as travel resumes in some parts of the world and peace of mind can be bought for the price of a first-class ticket or an isolated villa, the public health necessity to limit interactions with others could be revealing a whole new meaning to “social distance.”

Isabella Blengini, a professor at the École hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL), a hospitality management school in Switzerland, has been researching the effect of the coronavirus on different sectors of the hospitality industry in various countries. In an email, she emphasized that she was only in the beginning stages of combing through the data, but she said initial findings in North America were surprising. In the early months of the pandemic, it actually may have been the luxury travelers who were staying at home.


Bondi Beach in the Australian state of New South Wales. (iStock)

“On average, occupancy went down by 48 percent between 2019 and 2020 in the luxury class, while it was reduced by around 20 percent in economy hotels over the same time frame,” Blengini said. She said that some of that may be attributed to business travel: The luxury hotels that usually hosted people on business trips faced empty rooms as people shifted to Zoom calls. But Blengini was also quick to differentiate the initial effects of the pandemic with the recovery, months later.

“I believe that this is a very short-term effect on the [luxury] sector and that it will recover faster than the economy one,” she said. The reason? Money to spend. The ease of social distancing at a luxury resort is part of the reason, but Blengini said it might come down to who has been hardest-hit financially by the crisis.

Blengini’s prediction, of luxury travelers being the first to go back into vacation mode, appears to be playing out. Aman, a hotel group with ultra-luxurious accommodations, has been gradually reopening closed properties based on local regulations and returning demand.

“From a domestic (US) perspective, and in some cases internationally, we have already seen our guests returning to our properties, particularly those with villas, as soon as they reopened,” said Roland Fasel, chief operating officer of Aman Resorts. “We believe that generosity of space you find in an Aman naturally lends itself to physical distancing, and this is something that people are seeking right now.”

And it’s not just luxury accommodations that are feeling a swell in demand from the wealthy. Silver Air, a private aircraft operator based in Southern California, had to adapt its operations quickly when the coronavirus hit. In March, the company flew more international flights than it ever has, according to Jason Middleton, chief executive of Silver Air. They were repatriation journeys, flying people out of the United States to their home country and Americans back to the United States, he said.

Like everyone else in aviation, Silver Air then felt a drastic dip in demand as countries went into lockdown. In the past few months though, as major airlines struggle to fill planes, Silver Air has seen an increase in interest. The interest comes not only from business travelers who make up a large portion of its clients, but from vacationers who can pay not to interact with other people.


(iStock)

“In June 2020, we were up 38 percent over June 2019,” Middleton said, citing a new “Covid-19 Cleared” regimen that minimizes travelers’ touch points as one of the reasons. But a round-trip Silver Air flight from New York to Florida, what Middleton calls “the milk run” for how popular the route is, goes for around $12,000. A night at Amanzoe, an easy-to-isolate collection of villas in Greece? About $2,000.

So where does that leave the rest of us, those who can’t shell out thousands to have a vacation? When we do reemerge into the world, how do we make sure there’s still something left for us?

While luxury resort chains and private plane operators might be feeling the beginning of a comeback, the budget accommodation world is finding creative ways to stay afloat. In May, a group of travel companies came together to launch the “Adopt a Hostel” campaign, in which travelers can buy gift cards from their favorite hostels for future trips or to pass on to friends. More than 200 hostels in 65 countries have joined the campaign. Other hostels are experimenting with ways to tap into what attracts budget travelers, without reopening all their dorms at full capacity. Zostel, a chain of hostels in India and Nepal, for example, recently launched Zo World, a digital platform where “guests” can meet, talk and play games with other travelers in virtual versions of the hostels’ common rooms.

In parts of the world where coronavirus cases are being controlled and contained efficiently, initial evidence shows that the risks of social interaction aren’t keeping budget travelers away from real-life common rooms or shared dorms.

The two Flying Pig hostels in Amsterdam, popular budget accommodations for travelers, closed in March. The hostels’ parent company, Beds & Bars, convened the “World Hostels” group, a collection of 21 hostels, to survey customers, exchange information on regulations and best practices and chart a post-coronavirus future. In July, both Flying Pig hostels in Amsterdam reopened, but with new guidelines in place that include contactless check-ins, reduced occupancy in dorms, and more in-depth cleaning. “Demand is definitely coming back,” said Sophie Herbert, marketing and sales director at Beds & Bars. She cited search traffic for “Amsterdam hostels” as one reliable indicator of interest. “It’s currently at an equivalent level to a seasonal ‘quiet period,’ ” she said.

With lower occupancy requirements, basic economics would suggest that prices for budget accommodations would have to go up, but Herbert said that hasn’t been the case, in part because groups who already interact with each other are traveling together and booking dorms together. “We’ll always have beds for individual travelers, but the fact that people travel in groups is really supporting the industry,” she said.

It is a different story for Americans, of course, who are only allowed into a handful of countries around the world. Here, too, though, the budget traveler is getting creative. Bicycle sales are booming, and online bike touring forums are full of posts from first-timers asking for recommendations for panniers and lightweight tents. Campsites around the country are reopening — and filling up almost immediately. Delayed buses, a snoring roommate, a global pandemic: If there is anything the budget traveler is known for, it’s flexibility.

Read more:

The State Dept. lifted its blanket international travel advisory. What does that mean for Americans?

Has your travel bucket list changed during the pandemic? You’re not alone.

The new rules for packing a bag during the pandemic

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