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Valentina Jovanovski

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What WiFi Is Doing to Backpacker Culture

Posted: 11/30/2012 5:39 pm

Sitting in the lounge of a hostel in Munich, I looked around and noticed most people were consumed, not by interesting conversations with other worldly people, but by their electronic devices. In a setting where travellers normally gather to meet fellow globetrotters, laptops, tablets and smartphones were in abundant supply, while personal interaction was not.

A flyer in the lift of the hostel said wifi was available in the lounge but not in the dorms to discourage people from hibernating in their rooms. Internet in the common areas, it was assumed, would force guests to gather at one central location and mingle. But is that really how it works or has technology encouraged people to be less interactive in an otherwise hyper-social environment?

With wifi now a staple in most accommodations, backpackers no longer need to rely on other travellers for advice and directions -- Googlemaps and TripAdvisor can take care of that.

Could the ever-present book exchange shelf be next to go? I bet Amazon, owner of the Kindle, hopes the answer is yes. In August, the company announced that e-book sales since the beginning of 2012 had outstripped sales of hardback and paperback books on Amazon.co.uk. Kindle and other e-readers give users easy, space-saving access to thousands of books, freeing up extra luggage room for more chargers, batteries and gadgets.

And as smartphones become more affordable, even budget-minded backpackers can be card-carrying members of the technology age. Research firm Forrester even predicted 1-billion people globally will have smartphones by 2016.

Veronika Puskas, manager at the Wombats City Hostel in Budapest, said technology-consumed travellers are a common sight at her hostel. "I think that's the most common question: 'what's the password for the wifi?' That's the first thing [people ask]," she said.

Despite being a fairly large hostel with 461 beds, Wombats Budapest only has two computers for guest-use because most guests come equipped with their own smart devices. All they need is access to the Internet.

The Wombats hostel chain has facilities in Berlin, Budapest, Munich and Vienna, all of which offer free wifi. But Puskas said the hostel works to maintain a lively social atmosphere by organising parties, having a large breakfast area and offering a common kitchen where guests can cook together. And the bar next to the lounge helps too.

With smart devices becoming as essential as guidebooks and flag pins, some in the travel industry are seeing this development as an opportunity.

WeHostels, for example, allows travellers to make a hostel reservation on its mobile app and then connect with other people staying in the same hostel in advance of their trip by, for instance, writing on the wall of another user or becoming Facebook friends. The company says it has over 70,000 members in more than 120 countries.

Diego Saez-Gil, CEO of WeHostels, believes his company is using technology to make travel and the hostel experience more interactive. He said, "The growth of portable computers and mobile devices has made travel in some cases more individualistic but in several cases we have observed the opposite.

"We have observed that technology has facilitated connections, has facilitated friendships and has facilitated people to meet new people."

Saez-Gil also points out that the social atmosphere is what draws people to hostels in the first place. "We found that many people go to hostels not because they're cheap but because they want to make friends, because of the social aspect of that kind of accommodation," he said, pointing to a hostel in New York where private rooms go for $115 per night.

While the need for social interaction between travellers might be fading, the desire for it is still seems to be thriving.

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