Long sustainable youth hostels

“Hordes of hikers … people, wherever there is water, upon sea shores or upon river banks … stinking disorderly dumps of tins, bags and cartons bear witness to the tide of invasion…”

Sounds familiar, the kind of complaint made about the visitors invading the countryside and coast today, demonstrating how unsustainable our ways of travel can become.

But the quote with its horrified sound is from the 1930s, from a time when new bands of users had appeared in the countryside alarming landowners, farmers and residents. Unruly visitors ignored old countryside traditions, disturbed peaceful villages with their noise, left gates open, damaged crops and threw litter in their wake.

Their intrusion was resented as much as today’s visitors are.

Stinking disorderly dumps

Into this confusion youth hostels emerged. They insisted that their users would only travel sustainably, that their buildings would be sympathetic to local conditions and that they would work in partnership to preserve the environment.

They aimed for a sustainable tourism – though it wasn’t called that at the time – from which the countryside and country people would reap benefits.

A new tourism

The story of youth hostels and their use of sustainable travel, by bicycle or on foot, is as well known as their commitment to countryside conservation and education. Less well recognised is their commitment to sustainable tourism long before the term was invented.

But today, knowing about sustainable tourism, we can see how youth hostels aligned with the concept from their beginning.*

They aimed to encourage local travel to the nearby countryside using chains of hostels reaching out from cities and depressed urban areas. They organised themselves locally, involving participants in opening, running and maintaining properties.

Local places

When they could, they turned to local people, shopkeepers and farmers, to run hostels in their own property and, wherever they could, they used existing buildings, refocused with minimal change to new and sustainable use.

Their successes and the difficulties they faced make them a powerful model of how to do things sustainably, of the pitfalls and weaknesses that efforts to create sustainable tourism face today, and of how communities can work together to make our travel sustainable.


*It’s worth reading about the goals of sustainable development in this context here and sustainable tourism here.

C.E.M.Joad quote at the start is from Williams-Ellis, Clough, Britain and the Beast, J.M.Dent & Sons, London 1937.

Image (YO50001 Buttermere) courtesy YHA Archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

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