Youth hostels up for sale after drop in visitors

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The Independent Online

For sale: 17th-century rectory in Linton in the Yorkshire Dales. Extensive grounds, conservatory, drying room, cycle store, communal showers, six bedrooms, numerous bunk-beds and dormitory for 10. Would suit old woman with children evicted from shoe.

For sale: 17th-century rectory in Linton in the Yorkshire Dales. Extensive grounds, conservatory, drying room, cycle store, communal showers, six bedrooms, numerous bunk-beds and dormitory for 10. Would suit old woman with children evicted from shoe.

The Youth Hostels Association, provider of cheap country holidays to generations of young backpackers, has put 10 of its hostels up for sale in an attempt to cope with a multi-million-pound cash crisis.

It began its search for buyers last week, advertising for sale seven of its youth hostels designated for closure.

A £4m loss has forced the association's trustees to make the drastic move, which has upset rural communities around Britain. Many of them depend on hostels to bring tourist income to their neighbourhoods.

A combination of factors forced the trustees' hands. First, the closure of the countryside last year, caused by foot and mouth disease, resulted in a severe drop in business. In the aftermath of the crisis, occupancy of some YHA hostels – costing just £12 a night per person – fell by as much as half.

The events of 11 September also kept visitors away, with city centre hostels, as well as the rural ones, hit by a fall in overseas bookings. Finally, teachers have stopped taking children on group holidays as they become more reluctant to deal with the extra security checks and paperwork, inspired by greater concerns about children's safety.

"It has been a very difficult time for us," said the YHA's chief executive, Roger Clarke. "To a certain extent we have bounced back in some areas after last year's troubles, but things are still difficult in Yorkshire and Cumbria. We have had to look at our network of 230 hostels and make tough choices about closure. We could not carry the losses. Instead we have had to make economies."

Among the hostels that have gone on the market are the Linton rectory, two houses in Derbyshire, a country seat in Lincolnshire, a rambling Norfolk pile and a whitewashed house in Berkshire close to Windsor Castle. The asking prices are up to £300,000. Another two hostels, in Aysgarth in Wensleydale and Dufton in Cumbria, may still be sold, but local protests have persuaded the YHA to carry out studies to see if alternative plans can be made.

The YHA was founded in the 1930s when the appetite for cycling and rambling was at its height. Its aim was to "help all, especially young people of limited means, to a greater knowledge, love and care of the countryside, particularly by providing hostels or other simple accommodation for them in their travels, and thus to promote their health, rest and recreation".

But the days when young people were happy to holiday in a hostel with single-sex dormitories and spartan bathrooms, and to help with the chores, are long gone. Today, 65 per cent of the YHA's members are over 45.

The organisation is currently trying to upgrade its image and its facilities. Guests no longer do chores, bedrooms are replacing dormitories and the YHA is trying to forge closer links with ethnic-minority community groups and disabled people.

The hostels picked for closure include those that require the most refurbishment, as well as those that have had the least business.

John Barker of the estate agents FPD Savills, which is handling the sales, said several of the hostels could make excellent private homes, but they would all require planning permission to be changed from hostels to private residences.

Roger Clarke is also trying to secure new business, both from new kinds of visitors and in new locations. "Our biggest growth is in families. We can provide them with very cheap holidays," he said.

And while it is closing down a series of hostels across Britain, the YHA is also opening news ones – in seaside and urban areas. London, for instance, now has seven hostels, all a far cry from the image of a youth hostel up a dirt track hidden away in a leafy valley.

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