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Analysis & Opinion
10.02.12 Living Out Of A Suitcase
By Colette Linton

Having a good night’s sleep in Moscow these days is about having deep pockets. With prices skyrocketing and mid-of-the-range travel agencies like Lanta Tour and Capital Tour closing shop, enterprising Russians are inventing new ways to make life more affordable for their less prosperous compatriots. In Moscow, a city known for its expensive and cramped accommodations, hostels and dormitories have lately been springing up as inexpensive lodging alternatives to cheap hotels.

While the new trend may lack in efficiency and comfort, visitors to Moscow – many of them experts in the art of survival – are embracing it, even though it means forfeiting personal space in crammed hostels. Low-budget travelers to Moscow have also been resorting to the cheap havens as a way to escape the high cost of long-term residency in what is now the world's fourth most expensive city.

For Denis Karnaukhov, a new sojourner in the Russian capital, the new trend in hostelling could not have come at a better time. “I arrived in Moscow 18 months ago,” said Karnaukhov, sitting on a small bench in a 20 by ten square-meter room lined with bunk beds, with bags and suitcases tossed about the floor in careless abandon. His hostel room, which could accommodate as many as eight people, is a replica of many such hostels in Russia. Karnaukhov said he had come to Moscow for an opportunity to see his career through to the end and continue moving up the career ladder. “Where we lived in Novosibirsk, I didn’t have prospects for smart work, for smart management,” he said.

In addition to the small rental fee, Karnaukhov said he's drawn to the crammed hostel by its convenient location as well as Internet access. “You aren’t too far from anywhere or anything," Karnaukhov said. "It’s simply accessible.” Like Karnaukhov, Anna Alkhimenko moved to Moscow several months ago because she saw it as her only chance to start a professional career. A crammed hostel was not her idea of a decent lodging, but the ridiculously low rent helped her make up her mind. “[Living in a hostel] is a necessity, not necessarily what I wanted,” Alkhimenko said. “I hope to build my career and maybe this is the springboard.”

As the Russian economy picks up steam after the recession, many Russians have started to move into formerly booming centers of commerce like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Last year, about 55,669 Russian citizens relocated to Moscow, where the average apartment rental price reached 101,544 rubles ($3,413) during the third quarter, according to figures from the State Statistics Services (Rosstat). However, while many of the new arrivals now see hostels as a more affordable option than even low class hotels, hostels are still less popular with Russians than with foreigners. Dmitry Sobolev, the owner of “Day 'n' Night” hostel in Moscow, said young people and foreigners are better acquainted with the new hostel trend than internal migrants in Russia.

In 2010 there were 4,220 hotels in Russia, compared to just 507 hostels, according to figures published by Rosstat on its Web site. The modest popularity of hostels was also reflected in their patronage. In 2010 – the most recent year for which data is available – only 651 internal migrants stayed at hostels across the country, compared to the 19,109 who stayed in hotels, Rosstat said. But Sobolev believes this trend is changing. “More and more Russian tourists are starting to learn about hostels and they’re starting to understand that a hostel is different from dormitories that were common in the Soviet Union,” he said. “Even the older generation is coming to appreciate that hostels can be fun and interesting, as in Europe."

Sobolev, who is part of an emerging class of small-scale entrepreneurs to invest heavily in the hostel business, said he was inspired to build hostels in Moscow during his trips abroad. Whenever his travels took him out of Russia, he said, he had always tried to stay in hostels rather than in the less affordable hotels. “I only found out about hostels abroad,” Sobolev said. "There are many people like me who don’t like hotels and can't afford to pay for them. I know that if I need it [a hostel], then other people need it too." Sobolev added that while his experience abroad compelled him to set up a hostel in Moscow, he had also considered that the rates at Moscow hotels are very high.

Daniel Mishin, who owns the “Buddy Bear” hostels in Moscow, said he was captivated by the cultural atmosphere in a hostel he once stayed at during a trip abroad with his family. To him, the international composition of the guests in his hostel was much more appealing than the customer service or even the decor. "There is a big potential in the hostel market," Mishin said. "But it’s hardly going to be as big as in the hotels or apartment rentals.” So far, up to 65 percent of guests in “Buddy Bear” hostels are internal migrants, he said. “I think it’s good for society,” Mishin said. “We’re really giving a chance to people who have very limited budgets to visit Moscow and I think we’re doing a good thing.”
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