Boutique hostels with little luxuries lead to ‘flashpacking’ trend in Australia
Oliver Briggs’ first night backpacking in Australia was not a good welcome to the country.
”I’d just stepped off the plane in Melbourne from the UK. I had jet lag and I wanted to get some sleep and it turns out I’d checked into a non-stop party hostel.
“If the staff knew you were sleeping they would actually bang on the ceiling and wake you up so you joined in.”
For Epp Andrews, from Estonia, it’s the everyday hassles of hostelling which can be the most frustrating. “When you arrive at a hostel, you know something is always going to go wrong. You might get decent Wi-Fi but there’s no laundry or you’ll get a bunk bed but no ladder on it.”
Some hostels didn’t even have pots and pans, she said. “What do they expect us to do, carry a kitchen with us?”
Briggs and Andrews are two of a growing number of Australia’s 500,000 annual backpackers turning their backs on old fashioned hostels and their dusty dorms and stained sheets. Instead they are demanding hotel-style luxuries such as en suite bathrooms, always on internet, designer surroundings and restaurants serving more than just burnt sausages and anaemic mash.
And with real time ratings and reviews on apps such as WikiCamps and websites like HostelWorld, if backpackers don’t like where they stay they’ll happily tell everyone about it.
While they may be looking for value, together they have economic clout with backpackers boosting the Australian economy by some $3 billion a year.
’Flashpacking’ or ‘glampacking’ luxury boutique hostels are springing up in traveller hot spots worldwide such as Berlin, Dublin and Milan. The younger brother of ‘glamping’ the buildings often sport bright and distinctive designs a world away from the bland and ageing hostels they compete against.
Former Canterbury Bulldogs and Parramatta Eels player, and one-time captain of the New Zealand rugby team, Jarrod McCracken, has swapped footy for hospitality with the opening of a new upscale hostel in Townsville, northern Queensland, earlier this year.
The $15m Rambutan hostel is a joint project with his wife Michelle, who said the couple had travelled the world sleeping like backpackers to find out what was needed.
“We stayed in one in London which was the pits,” Mrs McCracken said. “The mattress was lumpy with old buttons like grandma’s bed and the toilets were backed up and overflowing. And that was $160 a night.”
But things weren’t much better back home, she said. “Australia needs to up the ante. The majority of current hostels were good 10-15 years ago but the bar’s been raised with travellers wanting more bang for their buck.”
Rambutan offers the usual backpacker facilities but with a number of up-market extras. All rooms, even those with dorms, are en suite with marble benches, the building is decorated with a “coastal Hamptons meets Queensland” theme, the kitchen features refrigerated lockers for food storage rather than communal fridges while cabanas line the poolside.
The restaurant’s offerings include Po’boys and watermelon and feta salads or even 12 hour brisket cooked in an authentic pit smoker. It’s all a little bit fancy.
Mr McCracken said they could afford the extras, and still offer AUD 25 per night dorm beds, by employing backpackers, opening the restaurant and bar to locals and letting out some of the property to retailers and cafes.
The industry, already competing with the backpacker buck with the likes of Air BNB, had little choice but to up its game, he said. “With hotels becoming more and more competitive and people putting out ads for backpackers to stay in houses, hostels are going to get left behind.”
NZ Beating Oz
The British are the number one backpackers in Australia followed by German and Korean visitors. But numbers have been falling.
According to research by Tourism Australia, travellers still put Australia on their ‘must see’ lists but New Zealand outperforms us in terms of product and service standards.
Already the industry has seen consolidation with major hostel chains Nomads and Base merging.
One of the largest players is YHA Australia with 85 youth hostels, from city centre mega lodges to small country hideaways.
YHA Australia spokeswomen Silke Kerwick said backpackers were continuing to look for safe and friendly places to stay but facilities had improved. “The key features are timeless like a comfortable bed, large self-catering facilities and communal areas to meet other travellers. But newer hostels usually have more ensuite rooms and free Wi-Fi is also now available for guests in communal areas.”
Many travellers liked the YHA’s more unique properties, she said, such as replica railway carriages at Sydney’s Central station and a nineteenth century former women’s prison in Fremantle, near Perth.
But one of the most sought after of its properties is the YHA Sydney Harbour in The Rocks which was last year voted the second best value place to stay in the world by travel guide Lonely Planet. It boasts not only views of the harbour that would be the envy of many a five-star hotel, and a rooftop deck but is also partly a historic exhibit with the rooms dangling over old streets painstakingly uncovered by archaeologists.
Tourism & Transport Forum CEO Margy Osmond said backpacker accommodation was evolving and needed to keep up with the expectations of travellers.
“As with glamping, there will be a market that glampacking will appeal to and it’s great to see innovation and investment to capitalise on that opportunity.”
Mr McCracken said that while he’d left sport behind, ex-players and coaching staff often dropped by Rambutan when the Cowboys were hosting.
So, can we expect the former footy player to be changing the sheets on the hostel bunks? “Looking after the bar is more likely. Pouring a beer and probably telling an exaggerated story about the past.”