Classic idea with a funky twist – this hostel startup has big plans to boost ‘backpacker culture’

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New Delhi: Young Indians want to travel. They are eager to explore domestic destinations. And they want to do it cheaply. The signs were encouraging enough for a travel start-up to bet on India’s burgeoning ‘backpacker culture’ – leisure travel characterized by shoestring budgets and dorm stays.

Backpacker hostel brand goSTOPS, which has been around since 2014, is preparing to grow from 2,500 beds in 32 hostels currently to 10,000 beds in 100 hostels by June next year, with an eye on travelers from Generation Z – people of different ages from 18 to 30.

With prices starting at around Rs 500 a night, and with dorms housed in well-maintained buildings with colorful decor (think murals and funky throw pillows), these hostels are more flashpacker than backpacker. They also usually offer private rooms.

A hostel room with a view in Manali, Himachal Pradesh | By special arrangement

The brand’s properties range from an elegant townhouse in Jaipur to a (rather) stately old building in Alleppey, to a hillside cottage in Leh, among many others.

While Covid lockdowns have dealt a severe blow to the hospitality industry, including hostels, the future is bright, according to goSTOPS co-founder and CEO Pallavi Agarwal.

“There were almost 700 hostels in India before the pandemic and the number has dropped to 400 now. But there are 370 million young people to cater to in India – the opportunity to develop backpacker hostels is huge,” Agarwal said in an interaction with ThePrint.

Since its inception, the company claims to have successfully raised $4 million from micro funds and angel investors.

A few surveys have drawn attention to Indians’ desire to travel as well as their preferences for easy and affordable travel.

For example, an October 2021 investigation of 1,400 smartphone users by lock screen content company Glance found that Indians in the 18-30 age group are the most eager to travel. At the time of the survey, up to 56% of respondents were planning a trip.

Domestic destinations were high on people’s travel wishlists, and there was reportedly a ‘spike’ in the proportion of people (32%) wanting to try ‘unique’ homestays and accommodations.

Additionally, the new “APAC Traveler Confidence Index” from Booking.com, which surveyed 11,000 people from 11 countries earlier this year, found that Indians were the most confident travelers in the Asia-Pacific region, but with a preference for domestic travel. Fear of Covid was not high on the list of brakes on zeal, but changing border regulations, high costs and quarantine did.


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What is the role of hostels?

Young people’s interest in travel presents a huge opportunity to transform India’s travel industry, Agarwal believes.

After opening its first hostel in Varanasi, goSTOPS has set up hostels in over 30 destinations in India and claims to have welcomed over 500,000 travelers to date.

Unlike a traditional hotel, a backpacker hostel focuses on community living, with dorms and common areas where people can interact with each other over board games, bonfires, and more, according to destination and season.

Young travelers bond around a bonfire at a goSTOPS hostel in Nainital |  By special arrangement
Young travelers bond around a bonfire at a goSTOPS hostel in Nainital | By special arrangement

A trip to Europe in 2011 gave Agarwal the idea to promote hostel culture in India.

“What we are doing is nothing new, it is something that is already being done on a global scale. Just that in India it could never develop and that’s what we focus on,” she said.

The company acquires hotels and houses, then converts them into hostels with dormitories and common areas, which usually include a TV area, cafe, games area and work area.

Unlike tourism companies that operate as aggregators and let the owners manage the hostel or homestay, goSTOPS oversees the management of its properties with the help of local staff.

Hostels as a concept attract many young people who are looking not only to save money but also to make friends while traveling.

Siddhartha Bhardwaj, a 24-year-old who works in Bangalore, said he preferred to stay in hostels for years.

“I mostly travel solo or with my friends, and hostels are the best places to stay. That way I save a lot of money and do more trips in a year,” he said. .

Some women also feel safer staying in communal spaces when traveling alone. “As a woman traveling alone, I think it’s best for me to stay in hostels. They provide a sense of security,” said Shivani Singh, 23, who works in Mumbai.

A goSTOPS hostel in Alleppey, Kerala | By special arrangement

“Free stay” opportunities

In a bid to popularize hostel life, Agarwal said his company has launched an initiative where young people can enjoy a free one-month stay at a hostel in exchange for “volunteer” work.

“There is a concept of a break year in Europe, where young people travel for a year. Since there is nothing like this in India, we decided to introduce a month break. This gives young people the opportunity to stay for free in our hostels,” said Agarwal.

That said, these guests are expected to volunteer to make a living in the most efficient way possible, whether that means organizing ice-breaking sessions like game nights, following yoga classes or lead hikes for other guests.

(Editing by Asavari Singh)


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