Marit Anderson signs her emails “Moonwalker,” her trail name. She completed the 2,178 miles of the Appalachian Trail in 2009, a portion of which is easily accessible, via Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway, from the place she calls home—Charlottesville.
As the vice president and hike leader of Charlottesville’s chapter of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, Anderson is a strong believer in “tourism as a natural resource.” She thinks Charlottesville could better capitalize on its natural assets by appealing to an international outdoors community. Step one? A hostel.
“My inspiration to start a hostel began with my experience as a thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, but expanded as I bicycled across America on the Southern Tier route from San Diego to St. Augustine,” she says. When a person does a long-distance trek, keeping costs down is often imperative, and hostels provide lodging at a reduced rate, as well as bring people together in common space while making a meal or resting, she adds.
Anderson believes the majority of tourists who descend on the gateway city to Shenandoah National Park are visiting the university, are history buffs or are touring the plethora of wineries and breweries in the area, and not so much here to partake of the rich natural resources.
“It’s disconcerting,” says Anderson. “Every winery is packed when I drive up to Skyline on a weekend. Did these people go and take a hike before?”
Anderson recognizes that many of the city’s tourists are not necessarily looking for an affordable housing option, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for a hostel.
“Experiential travel has become so much more popular, “ says Kurt Burkhart, executive director of the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Instead of going to one resort, people want to live like a local and make global friendships. Hostels offer that. They are an affordable travel option that often have stunning rooms and, most importantly, a common gathering area.”
Each year, 5,000 people set out to hike the Appalachian Trail from various starting points. Thru-hikers deeply committed to their trail timeline—or vacationers who enjoy hiking but are on a budget—often avoid Charlottesville and opt for a trail town where they can easily find a cheap meal, place to sleep, laundromat and grocery store.
“As a whole, everything is spread out in Charlottesville, but the downtown area is perfect,” Anderson says. “I recently looked at a property that could serve as a hostel on [West] Main Street, near the bus station and train station, but it would have cost me a million dollars to buy the property.”
Downtown is not the only area in Charlottesville considered prime real estate. Crozet, just 12 miles west, is an approved tourism district with close proximity to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which intersects with the Appalachian Trail.
“Crozet would be a perfect place for a hostel,” says Burkhart. “It is good for hikers and nature seekers. There has been talk about having a hotel built out there, which is a sign of where the industry is going. I say you go where the fish are biting.”
So far, Anderson has spoken with local accommodation owners about their experiences; the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau is next on her list. She also wants to gauge city government’s interest in an area hostel. Government backing would help expedite the process of locating a property and meeting local ordinances, and help alleviate concerns about it serving as a low-income housing option.
She points to the hostel in Richmond, HI USA, which is a part of an international hostel network and, therefore, receives better funding and visibility. “Perhaps the city of Charlottesville will see the viability of having a hostel in its downtown area to meet the growing lodging needs of tourists, students, visiting professors?” she says.