The History of Hostelling | Hostelling International USA

History of Hostelling

The HI-USA organizational history is closely tied to the international hostelling movement and to trends in global travel.

The hostelling story has six chapters:

  • 1909-1934: Origins The idea of hostelling is conceived in Germany, embodied in the International Youth Hostel Federation, and brought to the United States.
  • 1935-1945: Shadows of War A thriving hostelling movement in Europe and North America is stalled by the advent of World War II.
  • 1946-1965: Rebuilding and Renewal Hostelling rebounds with the new value placed by governments on international travel as an answer to isolation and misunderstanding, and national hostelling associations proliferate worldwide.
  • 1966-1980: An Explosion of Global Travel Economic prosperity, low-cost jet travel and Baby Boomers spur interest in foreign travel and hostelling.
  • 1981-2000: Growth and Transformation Record numbers of young people are served in hostels worldwide as large urban hostels are developed with high quality standards and program offerings.
  • 2001-Present: Tragedy and Renewal While the aftermath of September 11th causes sharp travel declines worldwide and massive financial pressures for HI-USA, it also prompts a bold new commitment to cross-cultural exchange.

Today in the U.S., there is a network of over 50 hostels hosting more than 1 million overnights annually. Worldwide, there are nearly 4000 hostels recording over 33 million overnights in more than 80 countries.

Origins: 1909-1934

Richard Shirrmann and a group of people sitting together in a field looking at the scenery

The youth hostel idea was conceived in 1909 by Richard Shirrmann, an elementary school teacher living in the industrial center of Germany. He became alarmed at the impact of the industrial revolution on his students' health and welfare. He created a "wandering school" on weekends by taking students on field trips into the countryside for fresh air and exposure to nature. Students unrolled their bedding each night in school buildings. The concept of student "youth hostels" was born.

The movement flourished in Germany. Permanent hostels were established by gifts of hiking and recreation clubs, wealthy patrons and local communities. By 1932, Germany had more than 2000 youth hostels recording more than 4.5 million overnights annually. In the meantime, Switzerland, Poland, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, the British Isles, Ireland, France and Belgium had joined the movement and added another 600 hostels in Europe.

With national hostelling associations spreading across Europe, in 1932 the first international meeting was held in Amsterdam to develop common standards. The International Youth Hostel Federation was formed.

Americans Isabel and Monroe Smith attended the second international meeting in 1933. Shortly afterwards, they opened the first U.S. youth hostel in Northfield, Massachusetts in 1934. American Youth Hostels (AYH) was born.

Shadows of War: 1935-1945

war poster that reads

A year after its formation the American Youth Hostels network consisted of more than 30 hostels throughout rural New England primarily to serve cyclists and recreational enthusiasts. Its growth received wide attention, and the endorsement of the president of the United States.

"I was brought up on this sort of thing and realize the need for hostelling," declared president Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, when he was honorary AYH president. "This was the best education I ever had, far better than schools."

Pre-war European political currents overshadowed much of the international movement in the late 1930's. Hostels were closed, and even appropriated by governments for military purposes. The operations of many European hostelling associations were suspended.

During the war, the growth of the hostelling movement stalled, although parts of the European youth hostel system still continued to operate, as well as a small network of hostels in the US and Canada.

Rebuilding and Renewal: 1946-1965

people rebuilding a house

The end of the war brought a time of rebuilding and reflection worldwide. Groups of American youth went to Europe to help rebuild hostels. International youth travel, while still nascent, was embraced by governments as a way to encourage understanding, and avoid future conflict.

The International Youth Hostel Federation grew, as the German youth hostel system was reestablished and new hostel associations were formed in Africa, Asia, Australia and South America.

In the USA, John D. Rockefeller III recognized the value of hostelling and agreed for several years to serve as president. The organization was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1949, and donations were solicited for the first time as a charitable institution.

Hostelling slowly grew through the 1950's with a continuing emphasis on rural hostels in bicycle vacation areas. The first association-owned hostel was opened in Indiana in 1954. The end of the 1950's brought with it the end of the steamship as the most economical route for travel to Europe; the age of affordable commercial airline travel was born.

An Explosion of Global Travel: 1966-1980

people walking and shopping in Chinatown

In the 1960's and 1970's hostelling prospered. With a growing economy, the advent of jet travel, and "Baby Boomers" coming of age, international travel was within reach of growing numbers. Public awareness of hostelling became widespread.

The national organization purchased its first hostel in Pennsylvania in 1961, setting the stage for other nationally owned facilities. Paul Dudley White, an internationally recognized cardiologist, served as honorary president and espoused international exchange among young people. Inner-city programs that served underprivileged youth emerged as a program focus.

The US bicentennial celebration prompted AYH to set its sights on developing its first large urban hostel in Washington DC. By its opening in 1969, the project had attracted a team of all-star supporters, led by actress Loretta Young. The Washington DC hostel's popularity exceeded expectations, and focus slowly began to shift towards developing large urban hostels.

The travel boom was briefly interrupted by the Arab oil boycott in the 1970's, as high oil prices increased airfares. But the globalization of travel could not be turned back.

Growth and Transformation: 1980-2000

hostel building near train

1980 was marked by the opening of a large urban hostel in San Francisco, in partnership with the National Park Service. By decades end, major hostels were opened in Boston, Miami, Santa Monica, Seattle and Washington, DC.

Growth continued throughout the 1990's, as major hostels opened in Chicago, New York, Orlando, San Diego and San Francisco. A strategic plan adopted in 1994 confirmed an ambitious vision of developing hostels in major cities and offering programs nationwide.

The International Youth Hostel Federation positioned the international movement for growth in the mid 1990's with the adoption of new hostel quality standards. It also embraced a common global name, "Hostelling International" and the blue triangle logo.

As the U.S. affiliate of IYHF, AYH embraced "Hostelling International" and the blue triangle, and adopted a more focused hostel quality program. "Hostelling International-American Youth Hostels" (or "HI-AYH") emerged.

Tragedy and Renewal: 2001 - Present

people holding up candles

The tragedy of September 11th shocked the United States of America and the world. Travel dropped sharply and persistent terrorism concerns and the onset of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) continued to depress international travel through 2004.

With dramatically fewer people traveling, hostel overnights and program participation sharply declined, creating temporary but massive financial pressures for HI-USA. Programming was cut back, and some hostels were closed in response to the post September 11th financial realities.

In the face of hardship, volunteers and staff became more resolute about the role of hostelling in global society. In 2002, HI-USA embraced a bold new commitment to broadening cultural exchange and started "Opening Doors, Opening Minds".

In 2003, the International Youth Hostel Federation formed the "Youth Hostelling for Peace and Understanding" campaign, citing its responsibility to "make our own contributions to intercultural dialogue, and to educate for peace."

At the same time, AYH adopted the name "Hostelling International USA", publicly declaring both its intent to serve all ages and its status as the sole US affiliate of the International Youth Hostel Federation.

Careful management of organizational resources led HI-USA to regain its financial footing by 2005. In 2006, HI-USA was once again in the position to develop new hostels and offer new programming.

Today in the U.S., there is a network of over 50 hostels hosting more than 1 million overnights annually. Worldwide, there are nearly 4000 hostels recording over 33 million overnights in more than 80 countries.