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Travel

Almost like a hotel: Germany's youth hostels going upmarket

A flat screen and a private bathroom. What sounds like the standard of a hotel room is often the case in German hostels. They are reaching for visitors beyond the ususal student groups. But this does not please everyone.

Her own room with a bath and toilet. It's something that Sabrina Kurth had not expected when she booked into a youth hostel recently. She was dreading things like common showers, lousy food, and kitchen clean-up duty.

And so it came all the more as a relief to her when her youth hostel in Dusseldorf had a breakfast buffet and single rooms with bath. For ten days she was engaged to provide technical support to a group of journalists meeting at the youth hostel, ten days that weren't as strenuous as she had feared.

Families and businessmen are also among the guests

"I was expecting to have to get up earlier and to stand in line to take a shower," Sabrina Kurth said. "This is almost like a hotel here." Mass dormitory rooms and simple food is the long-held image of hostels, an image dating back to the first-ever hostel in the world - by a German school teacher named Richard Schirrmann - in the Burg Alena castle in 1914. His idea was of a network of simple lodgings each within a day's walking distance from each other. The idea quickly caught on. Today, there are about 4,000 youth hostels worldwide, with some 500 in Germany.

Sabrina Kurth's testimony underscores the big change that has taken place in the youth hostels in recent years. "We offer our guests more and more comfort," says Barbara Mott of the Rhineland state association of the German Youth Hostel (DJH) movement.
Now, the hostels are not just geared to school classes and sports groups looking for cheap lodgings, but also to families and even business travellers.

Conference room facilities are popular

journalists are gathering around some tables in the conference room of Düsseldorf City Hostel. Copyright: Maja Hitij/dpa

A group of journalists in the hostel's conference room

Not just in the Rhineland region, but also throughout Germany the DJH is modernizing its facilities. "Teachers or the heads of groups simply expect to at least have their own room with bath," says Bernd Dohn, executive director of the DJH. School classes, comprising 40 per cent of all guests, still make up the largest contingent. Generally speaking, youth hostels in rural areas are those mainly booked by school classes. Youth hostels in the cities are geared more to young tourists, and mass sleeping dormitories are a thing of the past. "Our standard is now more the four- or six-bed room," Dohn says.

The Dusseldorf youth hostel, near the city centre, was opened in 2008. The facility advertises its convenient connections to the airport and fair grounds, and even has conference room facilities, the largest able to handle up to 210 people. "This one is virtually booked out for the entire year already," says Julia Punessen, event manager for the youth hostel. "We're cheaper than a hotel." Many conference participants will also stay at the hostel. There are 25 double rooms that can also be booked for single occupancy single rooms. There's a small flat-screen TV on the wall, and internet connections. "What makes us different than a hotel is that we have no minibars or telephones," Punesser said. Otherwise, all the rooms have their own shower and a separate toilet. Television sets are found only in the double rooms.

Regular hotels are not happy with the competition

The DJH movement is registered as an association for the common good in Germany, and so receives state subsidies - something that rankles Rainer Spenke of the North Rhine Hotel Federation. "The youth hostels now nearly have the character of hotels. This is unfair competition," he says, saying the hostels should concentrate on their core target groups of youths and families. "Business travellers and fair visitors simply don't belong there (youth hostels)," Spenke says.

Not everyone may book into a youth hostel. One has to be a DJH member, with fees costing 22.5 euros (25 dollars) a year for those over 27. Special rates are offered to schools and associations. The DJH wants to clearly distance itself from hotels, DJH director Berhard Dohn says. In youth hostels, the emphasis is on the common social interaction. "Sitting alone in your room, with a minibar and TV set - you won't find that with us."

By Julia Naue (dpa)

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