There’s a crisis brewing for Scotland’s hostels. The COVID-19 pandemic has cut a swathe through the tourism industry and the hostel sector has been particularly badly hit. Along with his partner Helen, Gregor Barclay owns and runs Saddle Mountain hostel in the Great Glen.
The forward bookings began to dry up in mid-February. We were then closed between late March and mid-July because of lockdown, losing a large chunk of our income for what is a limited season. The Scottish Government allowed tourist accommodation to reopen from 15th July onwards. However, the requirement for guests to physically distance from each other by 2m when indoors and the guidance about numbers of households and maximum numbers of people who can meet indoors (with physical distancing) has had a catastrophic effect on the number and types of rooms which hostels can offer to guests and the availability of shared facilities such as kitchens, dining rooms, lounges and drying rooms. The loss of shared facilities is not an issue affecting other types of tourist accommodation business.
At our hostel we are offering private rooms only, with an allocated toilet and shower. As a result, we’ve halved our normal capacity. With only one household allowed per room there are issues for solo travellers or groups of friends who would normally share a room. On top of that the physical distancing requirements and additional cleaning and disinfection that would be required means we cannot operate our shared facilities safely. All of this makes it hard to cater for the traditional hostel guest. Whole hostel bookings by walking clubs are also not possible with only three households able to meet indoors, up to a recommended maximum of eight people.
As a country, Scotland is lucky enough to have a large and diverse network of hostels. If you factor out the large city centre hostels the majority of them are privately owned and run and are small/micro enterprises, with no or few staff in addition to their owners. They are mostly in rural and island locations, a mix of tourist hotspots, popular mountain areas and places more off the beaten track, and they are run by dedicated owners who love the outdoors and believe in the communal ethos of hostelling. They cater for the outdoors community and provide walkers, cyclists and paddlers with the facilities they need. They are an integral part of outdoors life in Scotland.
Now, all of that is at risk. We are members of Scottish Independent Hostels (SIH), a group which represents 86 hostel owners all over Scotland. At the beginning of July SIH commissioned a survey to find out how its members were faring. The worrying results showed that over one third of members believe that after the current Government financial support ends in October their business will not survive for more than 6 months without further assistance. In our own case, even allowing for what has been fairly generous Government aid, we are likely to have only half of our normal income in 2020 and it looks like we will be on our own over the winter and into 2021.
Since the reopening date on 15th July most SIH members have been struggling to fill even the limited number of beds which they can offer. According to VisitScotland market research the general public’s preference is for self-catering accommodation, with hostels having the lowest level of appeal. The demand from the hostelling public has been suppressed because of the limits on what we can offer. Hostels are having to operate as motels or B&Bs, something which they are not designed to do. Hotels, B&Bs and self-catering businesses can operate as they were designed to (subject to capacity limits for some). Hostels can’t. There is no indication about when the current operating restrictions might be eased so bookings by walking clubs may not be feasible over the coming winter. We can’t even start advertising for the 2021 season as we have no idea what rooms and facilities we will be allowed to provide.
This is why SIH is currently lobbying the Scottish Government to raise awareness of the way in which hostels have been affected compared with other parts of the sector and to ask for recognition of this in the way of enough extra support to see us to the start of the 2021 season. The campaign has already featured on Radio Scotland’s Out of Doors programme, on BBC Alba, in The Great Outdoors magazine and in the local press.
What if the campaign is not successful? The sad fact is that in that case many hostel businesses will not survive. This applies not just to SIH members but to all hostels. It’s hard to imagine that Hostelling Scotland isn’t facing the same issues. If a hostel business fails it will be a tragedy for the owners and any employees but there will also be knock on effects. A hostel will often be the only budget accommodation option in a small community, and certainly the only one aimed squarely at outdoors folk. If the hostel disappears then fewer people will stay locally and other businesses will suffer. It may mean that the explosion in 2020 of mobile home users and car campers in rural areas will become permanent.
Is there any positive news here? SIH has teamed up with Independent Hostels UK to launch “Support our Hostels”. Its aim is to remind the public (and the outdoors community in particular) that hostels still exist and are open for business. None of us is currently offering our usual rooms and facilities but we are doing our best to tough it out by offering the best service we can while complying with the rules and keeping our guests and local communities safe. Now more than ever we need the custom and support of the loyal hostelling public. With your help we hope to make it through to the other side of the crisis.