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Thursday, 16 August, 2018, 15 : 58 PM [IST]

Indian Backpackers’ Hostels on their Growth Trajectories

Backed by a growing middle-class base, higher disposable income and a new cultural wave, more and more Indians are travelling and the travel and tourism industry in India thus has witnessed a meteoric rise. One trend that has long existed among the western travellers and is catching up in India is that of backpacking. As more and more Indians are taking up backpacking, this industry has got a positive boost and hostel chains such as Zostel, STOPS, Lavie, Roadhouse, Backpacker Panda, etc., are amongst many other smaller chains and standalone properties which have sprouted up and are successfully running the show. However, to exploit this trend to its advantage there is a huge concern in the infrastructure readiness of the country which includes services related to accommodation, entertainment and food where the country ranks at a meagre 110th (World Economic Forum, April 2017).

The travel and tourism industry in India has emerged as one of the key growth drivers in the service sector industry. India has rediscovered its potential as a major tourist destination for both domestic and international travellers. With its rich culture, diverse set of people, high historical capital, abundance of natural bounty and thriving business opportunities, there has been an understandable increase in the tourism activities. Apart from direct contribution to the economy, tourism is also a major employment generator and contributor to the foreign exchange. In 2017, India has been ranked at the 40th place amongst the list of 136 countries in Travel and Tourism Competitive Index (World Economic Forum, April 2017). India ranks high on the cultural quotient (9th) and vast natural resources (24th) which serve as a major attraction for tourist and is also ranked 10th on the price competitiveness. The tourism and hospitality sector in India contributed USD 71.53 billion in 2016, which accounts for 9.6% of the total GDP and is the third largest foreign exchange earners in India. Foreign exchange earnings (FEEs) in February 2018 were USD 2.706 billion. The number of Foreign Tourist Arrivals (FTAs) in February 2018 only was 1.05 million. A sum of USD 27.693 billion was earned under foreign exchange through tourism during calendar year 2017. This direct contribution of travel and tourism industry is expected to reach USD 147.96 billion by 2027 (Indian Brand Equity Foundation, 2017). Also, the total contribution to the job market facilitated

by the travel and tourism industry stood at 9.3% of the total employment (40,343,000 jobs). INR 2,284.9 billion worth of investment was made in the travel and tourism industry in India in 2016, 5.7% of the total investment (World Travel and Tourism Council, March 2017). With a stronger middle class, increase in the young professionals, higher disposable income and an optimistic economy, we have seen a rise on the number of domestic tourists in India. Indians are increasingly travelling more than any time before, both within the country and to foreign countries. According to the Ministry of Tourism data, the domestic tourist visits (DTVs) to the state and union territories has grown by 15.5% on a year on year basis and stands at a count of 1.65 billion. The foreign tourist arrival (FTA) has also increased by 18% on a year on year basis to reach 7,23,000 in September 2017 (Indian Brand Equity Foundation, 2017). The increase in domestic travellers is also backed up with the fact that domestic tourists are the major contributors to the travel spending. Domestic travel spending generated 88% of the direct travel and tourism gross domestic product in 2016 as compared to 12% by the foreign tourist counterparts. This gives a major boost to the hostels in the country and is a testimony to the fact that these new age social settings are set on a growth trajectory (World Travel and Tourism Council, March 2017).

Travelling today can be induced by various factors. There are myriad motivations, reasons and factors for people to travel that may range from a weekend leisure escape to a family holiday or for business purposes. All these different travellers have different needs and requirement that they expect out of their travel experience, both transactional and psychological. Popular media has always been a direct reflection of the society itself. Whatever is simmering amongst the people at large and whatever is their popular sentiment gets extrapolated, and mixing it with some dose of melodrama and intrigue we get the most popular media content. Bollywood in India is the best example to understand this phenomenon as a mere glance as the genre of the movies over years after independence would show a striking correlation to the general trends in the country at large. Drawing on this it is obvious that you must have taken note of Ranbir Kapoor touring the world with a professional camera jiving to Ilahi, Kangana Ranaut grooving in London and Paris, Shah Rukh guiding a clueless Gujarati belle across Europe, Alia hitting the Highway amongst other such believable characters who are on solo journey of joy and self-discovery. Thus, it is important for the industry to understand these travellers and align themselves with their needs to provide the expected service quality. One such group of travellers who has been on the rise are the backpackers. The phenomenon of backpacking and study of backpackers can be traced way back to 1972 when Cohen for the first time differentiated between institutionalised and non-institutionalised travellers. The former referred to as the conventional and traditional tourists in sync with the features of mass tourism whereas the later characterised of an off-beat set of middleclass young tourists with an unconventional travel pattern and service consumption habits. This is the latest trend if not a fad in our country right now, solo travelling and off beat travelling. So what is it? More and more people of the young generation, the well to do college goers and young professionals are backpacking and heading out to popular as well as off-beat destinations as solo travellers. Backpacking can be understood as the form of travel, mostly solo or in a small group, with a longer and more flexible itinerary on a tight budget, with the intent of exploring and understanding a particular place as intimately as possible and not just being a point to point popular destination tourist. For a backpacker the travel experience which includes the transit, the people and the place itself matter the most rather than the tourist spots. As a concept, backpacking popularly originated in the west where travellers would take out a month to travel and explore places on a tight budget. Naturally as discussed the motivator for a backpacker is the ethos and the culture of the place being visited, experiencing the place first hand, understand the people and culture, meet new people and interact with them. And moreover, because they have a longer and more flexible itinerary on a tighter budget, conventional staying options which do not fulfill any of their requirements gave way to the concept of backpacker hostels.

Backpackers’ hostels differ from conventional stay options in the fact that they offer the traveller with option to book a bed in a common dormitory rather than a private room thus cutting the individual’s accommodation cost drastically. There are several factors which make them unique and differentiate from hotels. A recent research conducted by Dr. Anjali Bansal and her former student, Ayan Bairolia in MICA, Ahmedabad to identify such factors corroborates the same. The research was undertaken in three stages using a mixed method approach with both qualitative and quantitative methods. The first stage of the research has employed online content analysis, where in 150 traveller reviews across 15 different Indian backpackers hostel on a leading travel review website were analysed. This exercise helped in identifying the various service dimensions that affect back-packers’ perception of the hostel. The content analysis was followed by the in-depth interviews with hostel owners and managers as well as habitual backpackers in the second stage of the research. All of those are based in India, this stage also witnessed the extensive interviews of 20 Indian backpackers. The qualitative research was backed by a quantitative study amongst 130 backpackers which indicated 9 distinct factors that Indian backpackers keep in mind before their hostel selection. These factors in the priority order are- staff behaviour, cleanliness of the hostel, the flexibility offered to the guests, the safety and security measures, the facilitation of social interaction, the services and facilities offered, the price of the beds, the location of the hostel and the gender based dorm composition. This research clearly suggests that the most important consideration for the service factor is the staff. The staff of the hostels are the first point of contact and the most dependable for a backpacker in a new environment. The guest is looking forward to a hostel where in the staff is efficient in their work, is a friendly person and helpful to the guest when needed. In the Indian market, the behaviour and attitude of the staff towards the guest could go in a long way in determining the success of the hostel property. The factor staff behaviour is followed by other softer aspects/ factors like opportunities of interactions with other travellers, fun activities, guided tours clearly indicate a shift in the needs of this unique category of travellers. Besides, the importance of the physical / hard factors i.e. clean spaces, spaces for parking, proximity to the prime locations, safety and security etc. does not get compromised. These remain crucial in decision making. Hence, it becomes essential to the hostel brands to build their communication and marketing strategies in accordance with these need priorities. And thus the communication by the backpackers’ hostels which offer the inexpensive stay options should be centered around important factors such as friendly staff, clean bedding and a socially active atmosphere rather than the location and price of the bed per night. But before that it will be interesting to see how and to what extent the backpackers’ hostels in India which are characterized by being low investment budget accommodations will build on the above mentioned service quality dimensions and meet the requirements of the backpackers.

Hostels moreover, are designed and maintained in a manner which is in ethos with the culture of the place it is located in, helping the travellers explore and experience with local guidance as well as to facilitate interaction with fellow traveller lodged in the hostel through common areas. Hygiene factors such as security, cleanliness, assistance, food and other allied services are kept in mind and popular hostel chains are the ones that have aced the above factors well. They have received rave reviews and have helped kick in the change from conventional hotel accommodation in India to bed based dorm accommodation in hostels. The interviews with the owners and these travellers have clearly indicated that the challenge of the infrastructure readiness still lies.

The hostel market in India is at a nascent stage and with the overall expansion of properties and upcoming hostel brands, it is important to understand the service factors in the context for Indian backpackers staying in Indian hostels. While India has got huge youth dividend to exploit sectors like backpacking and backpackers’ hostels, at the same time the youth at large will be looking for options to strengthen their travel experiences. The service providers in hostels are definitely sensitive to their requirements and are hopeful that this sector will receive high pace in the coming years. Deep Kalra, the founder and CEO of an online travel company, has rightly mentioned that today’s travellers want unique experiences tailored to their priorities and want to take control of their own itineraries (Business World, January 2018). Delivering to them starts with the very point of understanding their unique travel behaviour and predicting what they will need even before they begin the booking process.

The views expressed within this column are the opinion of the authors, and may not necessarily be endorsed by the publication

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