Now that one of the city’s biggest hostels has permanently closed its doors, we hung out with members of the community, which extends beyond travellers looking for cheap accommodations.
“Life’s too short to sleep alone!” was scrawled on the blackboard above the front desk at Global Village Backpackers during the hostel’s final day last month. In the lobby, remaining staff members slumped dejectedly near the windowsill, surrounded by backpacks and garbage bags stuffed with clothing. After owner Richard McCarron’s death in December, his family decided to close the colourful King and Spadina establishment. Staffers were suddenly out of a job—and, since several lived at the facility, some were out of a home. The welcoming message now seemed like a painful reminder of what else those who frequented Global Village were losing.
The iconic hostel constituted its own community—former guests had met spouses there, and news of the closing triggered an emotional outpouring of memories on the hostel’s Facebook page. It was more than an ever-changing collection of travellers—it was a place where people working in and moving to the city could find their footing.
Despite the loss of Global Village, not to mention the rise of alternative accommodation services like Airbnb and Couchsurfer.com, the hostel scene is thriving in Toronto. There are currently around 20 hostels and guesthouses listed in the city. A little over three years ago, a massive hostel called Planet Traveler opened up near College and Bathurst, complete with geothermal heating, solar panels, and free WiFi. The sleek minimalist space is booked steady from April through September, with up to 130 travellers convening nightly at the rooftop bar to watch films on the massive outdoor screen, or in the common room to read a book beside the roaring fireplace.
The appeal of hostels lie primarily in atmosphere and price point (shared rooms start around $25), but in a city as big as Toronto, the mix of clientele extends beyond travellers looking for cheap accommodations. The same week that Global Village shuttered, people streamed through the busy lobby at the Church Street location of Hostelling International, past bikes for rent and sign-up sheets for excursions around the city.
Marlena and Jasmin stood outside the entrance while the latter smoked a cigarette. The German women were staying at the Church Street HI while here on work visas. Jasmin had been in a number of hostels—a few with vermin horror stories—but said that this one was immaculate. It also had perks: a bar/bistro, patio, communal kitchen, and pool table, as well as offering pub crawls and walking tours. Though she was looking for the cheapest place to crash, Jasmin opted for a hostel because she was uncomfortable with the idea of couch surfing alone at a stranger’s house. “Hostels are the best place to meet people,” added Marlena.
Toronto’s hostel scene is constantly changing, according to the Church Street HI’s general manager, Desmond Tibby. “So many people are coming to Canada to work,” he said. Since the recession, there have been more international travellers on working visas, as Canada’s comparatively robust economy is a draw. But that’s led to another trend. “Five or six years ago, we had so many English and Irish staying here. Now there’s so many people [from those countries] who are established in Toronto, when others come over, they’ve got friends and family—they can just stay with them.”
Though Global Village is gone, the community element will continue to be the key to success for this city’s hostels. The multi-lingual, multi-cultural mix of patrons at these places echoes the diversity of Toronto itself.
In one of the tributes on Global Village’s Facebook wall, Jenny Warrillow wrote, “This place was my starting point in Canada and provided me with a place to live for three happy months, friends, and also a step on the employment ladder to get into work permits and a long-term job. Without this place, I wouldn’t have the life I have now in Canada.”