Boutique Backpacking in India
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This might change how India travels, and how people travel in India.
By Zara Stone
Experiencing other cultures is the reason people travel; the aroma of sun-drenched Italian markets and the sight of the sun fracturing the sky over the Pyramids will stay with you for life. But traveling extensively can mean serious budgeting, which often involves nights spent at hostels of dubious quality where you might find suspicious-looking sheets and dial-up Internet. Many countries are trying to improve the hostel experience, but India is still relatively uncharted territory.
Akhil Malik sees this lack as an opportunity for entrepreneurship. He is a co-founder of Zostel, a new breed of Indian hostels designed to offer a “boutique backpacker” experience with fast Internet, creature comforts and a modern, friendly community. The first Zostel opened in 2013 in Jodhpur with the idea of creating a “cool, casual atmosphere, with a focus on hygiene.” Also for your — get this — $4.60 a night, there are colorful tangerine walls, squashy beanbags and bright common rooms.
Hostels aren’t familiar to Indian natives — businesses would target families, not solo travelers.
The idea was concocted and bootstrapped while the seven founders were at business school together. They all loved traveling — Malik’s favorite experience was trekking the Himalayas — and were frustrated that what was easy in Europe was difficult in India. The idea was to “change the way India travels,” Malik says. But there was an obstacle: Hostels aren’t familiar to Indian natives — businesses would target families, not solo travelers. Initially Zostel guests were 80 percent foreign and 20 percent local. However, as people learned more about the space and approach, that breakdown changed; Malik estimates that it’s now closer to 65/35.
But while providing adventure, traveling in India can be problematic. Backpacking in India is ”the ultimate experience,” said Rajeev Seth from India With Rama tours, but when it comes to hostels, issues can arise around communication and food. Travel expert Lynne Adams warns that backpackers will need to adjust to the poverty, which is “visible and evident.” Location is paramount, she explains, and many Zostel’s aren’t within a mile of the city center. And the chain’s claim to “the fastest Internet in the city”? That’s with the proviso that Indian infrastructure isn’t comprehensive — even 512 kbps is classified as broadband. Translation: A Game of Thrones episode would take about two hours to download.
Still, Zostel’s modern formula is proving a winner. To encourage transparency, the company recently uploaded its financial details. Operational costs and complex forms put off a lot of wannabe entrepreneurs, Malik explains, but he hopes this encourages competitors, as he likes the challenge. There are now seven locations across India, and they’re running an incubator program to train would-be Zostel owners — so far they’ve had 2,000 applications from 120 locations. Their six-month plan is to open 30 more Zostels in India. Next, the world.
It might be Western style — i.e., that Steve Jobs’ book sitting atop a Scrabble set in the lounge — but the tantalizing smell of Mirchi bada emanating from the kitchen and the slow-burn of your evening curry will place you firmly in the subcontinent.