Youth Hostels in Transformation
Itchy woollen blankets and wobbly bunk beds are things of the past. The German Youth Hostel Association is well on its way to shaking off its image of being a cheap place for school classes to stay overnight. A number of Germany’s 529 youth hostels have now become comfortable holiday accommodation offering leisure and recreational activities, setting their eyes on a target group that Richard Schirrmann presumably had not considered when he opened the world’s first youth hostel in Altena Castle (likely in 1914) – families. We take a look at the history of German youth hostels and current developments.
Richard Schirrmann and Altena Castle
Had he stayed at Diez Youth Hostel, Richard Schirrmann (1874-1961), a primary school teacher from Altena and father of the youth hostel idea, would not have believed his eyes. The individually designed rooms with ensuite showers and toilets in the romantic Castle of the Counts by the River Lahn that awaits guests in 2012 have little in common with Schirrmann’s vision of basic overnight accommodation. According to the founding myth, the primary school teacher had the brainwave of setting up a network of reasonably-priced accommodation, with each hostel a day’s hike from the next, when he was on a hike from Altena to Aachen through the Bröl valley with a class in 1909. Surprised by a thunderstorm, the ambitious teacher had great difficulty in finding shelter for the horde of children. Not even the farmers wanted to let in the group of hikers, but at least they gave them some straw so that they were able to make a provisional shelter in a school.
That episode had unforeseeable consequences. The resounding success of Schirrmann’s concept of affordable accommodation was boosted by the fact that the concept of youth was undergoing ideological revaluation at the time, with youth being seen for the first time as a distinct phase of life with its own value. Young people themselves, too, had acquired a taste for getting in touch with nature in forests and valleys. Schirrmann primarily envisaged youth groups on hiking tours, and initially, it was these for whom he provisionally converted schoolrooms unused during the holidays into simple dormitories and dining rooms. Then in 1914, the founder of the German Youth Hostel Association opened the world’s first permanent youth hostel on the lower floor of grand Altena Castle.
Turning to families
Today, Altena Castle in the Sauerland region is one of 40 German Youth Hostel Association facilities that are located in a castle or mansion. In all, 529 youth hostels are in use, of which 120 are equipped with comfortable beds and practical storage facilities, so that even families with young children feel at home there – some places have even installed nappy-changing tables.
But why the change? “Since we noted a trend towards shorter stays by school classes a few years ago,” explains press spokesman Kurt Dinter, “we have been trying to compensate for the reduction in bookings by opening up to families.” The approach of making the institution of German youth hostels more suitable for families through various modernisation measures is already proving a success. While class outings continue to comprise the largest group of visitors at 40 per cent, families accounted for a fifth of the more than 10 million overnight stays in 2011.
Youth hostels – a world of experience
The German youth hostels are holding their own in the hard-fought travel operator market – and not only because of their fair prices (members pay an average of 20 euro per night). In contrast to a package holiday, youth hostels are attractive for their individual leisure activities and the opportunity to experience the natural environment. “Many people just want to experience something different,” says Dinter, who explains youth hostels’ current popularity by peoples’ growing desire for something natural. Some youth hostels have employed their own environment instructors who translate Schirrmann’s ideal of being in touch with nature into contemporary concepts.
These include, for example, a Veggie Day, with exclusively vegetarian food on the menu, breaking visitors in gently to the idea of going green. In the Black Forest, you can launch a boat you have made yourself, while in other youth hostels, guests can go riding, climbing or sailing accompanied by well-trained staff. “Parents have the peace of mind of knowing their children are well-looked after in our leisure programmes,” says Dinter, who says that a disproportionately large number of guests are single parents. Luckily, they will not be on their own for long, because the spirit of experiencing something together has remained unbroken to this day in the cafeterias, common rooms and sports facilities at German youth hostels. Richard Schirrmann would definitely have been proud.
is a freelance writer who lives in Munich.
Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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