I often share how a hostel stay delivers a form of understanding that diplomats cannot: informal exchange among people diverse in background and nationality, but linked by openness to new conversations and friendships. In hostels, these conversations begin in the common room lobby where travelers meet, and can continue for hours over a coffee down the street as they get to know each other.
The impact of this “common room diplomacy” can be felt when we learn in the media about countries with internal challenges – natural or human made – and feel a special affinity for those living there. At their best, our travel experiences can provide a feeling of connectedness with countries and peoples, which in turn we can use to inform the perspectives and actions of our friends and colleagues.
The hostel movement is worldwide, with affiliates in Egypt and Tunisia. HI-USA and those national hostelling associations (along with France, Germany and Morocco) after September 11th began annually hosting in turn a program of extended hostel stays to bring together their young people for conversation and exchange. Called IOU Respect, program participants report greater cultural awareness, understanding and respect for others’ cultures as a result.
It’s when times are most uncertain – and “official diplomacy” is searching for answers – that informed and connected citizenries can hold special value. The community of travelers – living in countries large and small, and informed by their varied travel experiences – in their daily lives become a voice for humanity.
How important is it for young people to have their own voice? If travel advances mutual appreciation among peoples and cultures, then hostels promote a form of travel egalitarianism – opening doors to travel for those who might not otherwise afford it.
In times like these, a broad spectrum of informed voices must be heard. Hostels are places that foster them.