'Austere' youth hostels lose out as backpackers choose to take it easy

AUSTERE, OLD-fashioned youth hostels are facing competition from a new breed of more relaxed establishments which are pulling in the classic hostel customer.

Commercial alternatives have mushroomed all over Scotland, offering cheaper accommodation for backpackers without the restrictions traditionally associated with the Youth Hostels Association, such as curfews, no alcohol and single sex dormitories.

Visitors can also sit around during the day enjoying free teas and coffees. By contrast YHA hostels across Britain are saddled with a reputation of scrubbed austerity, where stroppy wardens insist on visitors being locked out from 10am to 5pm and locked out again if they miss the 11pm curfew.

Hostel associations north and south of the border denied being staid and scruffy, although four of Scotland's 70 hostels are set to close this year. Numbers will be down by 10,000, despite the many foreign travellers who include Edinburgh and the Highlands on their grand European tours.

Douglas Burgoyne, a 30-year-old New Zealander, said he had been told about youth hostel rules before arriving in Scotland and steered clear of them.

"Friends of mine spent the night on the street, pushing a hostel buzzer after being locked out. They had come out of a nice warm pub and arrived back about 11.30pm."

Mr Burgoyne arrived in Inverness as a tourist last spring and has stayed on working at the commercial Ho Ho Hostel. "In these other places - traditional hostels - there are too many curfews, rules and regulations, and you might still be staying in a boot camp basically," he said.

Another Ho Ho Hostel guest, Scot, a 23-year-old American,said he had been warned in advance about SYHA restrictions, including that hostels were "run by difficult Christians".

The comment illustrates the image problem, for while youth hostels have more regulations than commercial ones, the movement has no religious mission. Founded in 1931, its object is to enable everyone, but particularly young people, "to know, use and appreciate the Scottish countryside and places of historic and cultural interest".

SYHA hostels had 633,000 visitors last year, with the biggest foreign contingent from Germany. This year numbers are expected to be about 3 per cent down after a miserable tourist season in Scotland.

Philip Lawson, the chairman of the SYHA, said there was no disaster looming and blamed foreign visitors' impressions on "propaganda" from the commercial operators.

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