In The Press


Travelling Light

Backpackers and budget travellers have plenty of accommodation options in South Africa , with over 300 establishments catering to the youth market and young-at-heart travellers. Many of these lodgings are in prime locations, too

By Keri Harvey

The youth travel market is older and wealthier than ever before. For many travellers using backpackers and budget accommodation, it's a conscious choice to stay there and is not always financially driven.

Co-owner of the popular Backpacker's Ritz of Johannesburg, Steven Baines, says he has had stockbrokers as guests, as well as many older people who choose to stay at the Ritz though they can afford any hotel or B&B. It's a lifestyle choice,' says Baines, because more and more people prefer this type of accommodation, where they can meet others and form friendships.'

He says there's been a complete change in the market since the 1960 hippie budget travellers. Now, people are travelling either pre- or post-university before settling down. So most of today's youth travellers are qualified and professional, and the market is intelligent and wealthy, but just choose a different form of travel where they interact with people from the country.' Retired people are also choosing to stay in traditionally youth-market accommodations, either to extend their budget or simply because they enjoy it.

While a decade ago the youth market was 18 to 25-year-olds, today the market has shifted to include 20 to 40-year-olds. But you can't be too old to stay here,' says Baines, and we have already had an 89-year-old gentleman to stay, who was also blind.' He says the youth travel market has no special needs, just security, comfort, cleanliness and friendliness the same as everyone else'.

Sue de la Harpe from Ashanti Lodge and Travel Centre in Cape Town adds that, A good vibe is also very important to youth travellers. They just want to have a stress-free, good time.'

General consensus amongst youth accommodation owners is that the youth market is lucrative. De la Harpe says: This market has always been underestimated, but it's very lucrative because the youth seldom have overheads to worry about.'

Baines adds: Budget or youth travellers spend exactly the same amount of money as top-end travellers, they just spend it in three months instead of three days. It's just that their expenditure patterns are different and they are willing to cut down on accommodation choice to do other things, like go on a tour. It's simply a different way of travelling.'

Youth accommodation owners agree that South Africa is very accessible to youth travel, and many companies focus solely on the youth market, most notably the Baz Buz which runs a hop-on hop-off service. Their route includes Johannesburg , Mpumalanga and the Drakensberg and runs along the coast all the way from St Lucia to Cape Town . But numerous tour operators and transport companies also operate specifically in the youth or budget market. More and more, the youth are interested in the cultural elements and the people as well as local music and sport. Not all of them just want to party,' says Baines.

Although there are over 300 backpacker-style accommodations around South Africa compared to just 15 a decade ago - many proprietors believe there is still room for more, while others think not. De la Harpe says there was a boom a few years ago, but now thinks accommodations off the beaten track struggle a bit for occupancy. Baines confirmed that backpackers generally follow a set route around South Africa from Johannesburg to Mpumalanga , Swaziland , Durban and Cape Town so most accommodation is concentrated in these areas. But there are always gaps and opportunities in the youth market to cater for trends, as they change all the time. So there's always room for improvement.'

Mark Baines from On the Beach in Durban , has extensive personal experience staying in backpacker-style accommodation around the world and says, South Africa is very youth-friendly, and the infrastructure we have for youth travel is excellent. We are more geared up for youth travel than Europe, and I think we are on a par with Australia .'

He says the youth accommodation and travel market is extremely reliable because when the Rand is strong, some B&B-style travellers move to budget and backpackers accommodation, and when the rand is weak, more people travel to South Africa - so it's a win-win business.'

But youth accommodation wasn't always a lucrative business. Pre-1994, South Africa was perceived as dangerous,' says Baines. But the Rugby World Cup put South Africa on the map as a backpacking destination. Now, travellers see South Africa as safe, with good infrastructure for travellers. The Baz Bus has also had a huge positive impact on the industry, as it takes backpackers to areas they wouldn't normally go and has opened up the whole market.

The youth market has changed completely since the $5/day traveller who tried to live on as little as possible for as long as possible these were the original overland travellers who came from Europe, not on a tour, but on local transport and hitchhiking. Now, we get a lot of package tourists who spend a little longer than the average tourist, singles, and young couples without children. In the past five years, there are far more holiday-makers as opposed to travellers, staying with us,' says Baines.

An important consideration is that many of the budget or backpacker-style accommodations are in prime areas of the cities and on the coastline, with superb views. And others offer a quirky edge to the accommodation, such as The Gaol in Grahamstown located in a converted jail; national monument Veyane near St Lucia , which is a Zulu cultural village with accommodation in traditional beehive huts; and Sondzela in Swaziland which is set in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary. But whether you want to search for fairies in Hogsback, feel sea spray on your face or sense the spirit of the Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda . . . or go directly to jail, there's definitely a budget-accommodation option close by.

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Further reading: Coast to Coast and The Alternative Route both available free from backpackers lodges.

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