Hostel Environment

Affordable Lodging for the Green Spirited

From alpine forests to urban jungles and tropical savannahs, youth hostels offer a friendly atmosphere for global eco-travelers. Since the international youth hostel movement began in 1907, nearly 5,000 hostels have sprung up around the globe—and some are taking on environmental agendas.

The first hostel was on the classroom floors of Germany’s Nette School, where teachers cleared away desks at night and set out thin straw beds for young travelers to stay on. In the mornings, guests helped clean up the rooms to earn their keep.

Hostelling International Photo

This sustainable hostel in New Hampshire will soon boast a solar powered hot tub.

Hostels have evolved far beyond straw beds on classroom floors. They usually offer dorm-style housing, a common room, and a shared kitchen—all for an average of $10 to $15 per night. Some offer private rooms at an extra cost, or provide discounts for Hostelling International members (a $25 membership fee includes discounts on rooms, linens and food, and resources for travel). With their friendly environment and communal style, hostels are a great way to meet friends from all nations and exchange traveling ideas—including green destinations.

New Zealand hosts some of the world’s most environmentally progressive hostels. According to Dennis Gaylor of Auckland Central Backpackers (ACB) hostel, “You make do with what resources you have and things are not thrown out until they’ve been used to their fullest. Recycling isn’t so much a task as a part of life.”

ACB sets a yearly environmental plan, covering such concerns as water, lighting, cleaning and transport. The hostel uses low-flow shower heads, buys bulk supplies, offers energy-efficient fluorescent lighting, and has an inside garden of native plants. It also donates a portion of its eco-tour profits to conservation projects, and encourages guests to take public transport. Posters throughout the hostel additionally encourage travelers to reduce waste, recycle and respect nature.

On New Zealand’s south island, the Shambala Beach-Farm Hostel is a model “sustainable mini-community.” Set on Golden Bay beach near the Abel Tasman National Park, the hostel runs an organic farm where hostelers can work off their room and board. The hostel also uses composting toilets, and solar heating and electricity.

In Southern Africa’s Zululand, where rhinos roam the savannah, the Amazulu Backpackers Lodge opened in 1996. “Rhinos are close to my heart,” says owner Tina Lewis. “I had the wonderful opportunity to help raise an orphaned white rhino baby.” A dedicated conservationist, Lewis spreads the news about the plight of African rhinos and other wildlife among the hostelers. Nature and game reserves surround Amazulu, which serves as a base camp for exploration. Lewis, with her extensive knowledge of Zulu history and wildlife of the region, takes hostelers on trips to the Umfolozi/Hluhluwe Game Reserve. Plans for a native plant nursery are underway.

In the depths of Costa Rica’s jungle, Rara Avis youth hostel still awaits discovery by intrepid backpackers. You might spot capuchin monkeys, hognosed vipers, poison dart frogs or leaf-mimic katydids. A hotspot for bird enthusiasts, Rara Avis includes a butterfly farm, gorgeous waterfalls, smoking volcanoes, and two rustic lodges. Guests can take Dr. Donald Perry’s Aerial Rainforest Tram to explore treetop life as well.

For a more temperate scene, Canada’s Lake Louise International Hostel in Southern Alberta’s Banff National Park creates compost for its vegetable garden, created its own recycling program, and is part of Hostelling International-Canada’s “environmental task force.” “We already recycle cans, glass, plastics and newspaper, and use environmentally friendly products,” says Hostelling International-Alberta’s Margit Phillips, who stresses that many hostels want to thoroughly integrate environmental initiatives into their operations.

The Albert B. Lester Memorial Hostel, a sustainable living center in Conway, New Hampshire, is another great find. Nestled in the White Mountains-which boasts the highest peaks in the Northeast-the hostel has an organic garden and compost facilities, rainbarrel water collection, recycled plastic-and-sawdust wheelchair ramps and a recycling center. Its interior paints are volatile organic compound (VOC)-free, the drywall is made from recycled construction scraps, the carpets are derived from recycled soda bottles, and the administrative office uses recycled office supplies and paper. Lights are motion-activated compact fluorescents. Faucets are of the low-flow variety, and bedraggled hikers walk across floor tiles created from recycled airplane windshields. The hostel’s future plans include a strawbale amphitheater and solar-powered hot tub!

Hostels have always been a great way to save money, especially for penny-pinching students, but now they’re becoming a great way to help the Earth, too.

WENDEE HOLTCAMP is a freelance nature writer based in Texas.