Incredible women empower us to be our best selves every day. Not only world leaders and celebrities, but our mums, sisters, aunts, nans, friends… even that girl on the bottom bunk who’s been travelling the world solo for the last two years. Just existing in this patriarchal world makes us all heroes, and that’s before all the awesomeness we achieve every day! In celebration of International Women’s Day, we spoke to 9 phenomenal female hostel owners from around the globe about the fantastic things they’re doing and the people and places that inspired them to become the bosses that they are.
1. Golnar Zamani and Habibeh Fathi – owners of HI Tehran Hostels – Tehran, Iran
Golnar and Habibeh are true heroes in their field, changing the game for both women and travel in Iran forever. As the country’s first EVER female hostel owners, they set out to change perceptions about Iran and get more travellers excited about exploring their fascinating country.
“We knew there were and still are many misunderstandings about Iran as the result of politics and media. As avid travellers, we believe there’s nothing better than direct experiences to change a wrong judgement. In our hostel we’ve had many guests who came to Iran thinking it would be the most dangerous trip of their life and ended up going to local weddings and coming back again with their kids or parents, as they could see Iran is all about love when you explore it yourself.” – Golnar & Habibeh
After opening the first HI Tehran hostel in 2016 proved a massive success, the second branch was opened in the city in 2018, making it Iran’s first hostel chain. But as you can imagine, being the first women running a hostel in Iran hasn’t always been easy.
“It was very difficult at the beginning – no one took us seriously. Getting authorisation was hard, especially as hostels were so rare – we had to present big proposals to the government about what one even was! On top of this, just being women was enough for some organisations to make it more difficult for us. Competitors and more experienced people in this industry weren’t willing to cooperate with us and we were isolated. Little by little, we became stronger and things got better. But it’s only fair to mention that we had many wonderful male colleagues, competitors and companions throughout our journey who backed us up.”
In the last few years, more and more hostels have opened as the international travel community has woken up to the wonders of Iran. But HI Tehran remains a backpacker favourite thanks to the warmth of Golnar, Habibeh and their teams. We love their traditional touches and community events, like arts and craft sessions with locals, neighbourhood walking tours and Iranian music nights. They also take care to be sustainable, growing their own fruit and veg and implementing water and energy saving measures.
Golnar and Habibeh say their hope is to empower other women in the industry to start a business, as well as any young person in Iran or beyond who has a dream they want to pursue. “We really believe that our goals can be achieved and progress can be gained only if people, despite their gender, sexuality, race, beliefs and differences, connect with each other and create a better synergy.”
We know we could all learn something from this pioneering pair of female leaders.
2. Kim Whitaker – owner of Once in Cape Town and Once in Joburg – South Africa
After a backpacking trip around South America, Kim fell in love with hostel life and returned to Cape Town with a new-found passion, opening her first hostel in the city in 2007 aged just 23. She says “I made a ton of mistakes! But in the process, I learnt a number of valuable lessons. I call this the University of Life.” In 2013, she opened the doors to Once in Cape Town, followed by Once in Joburg in 2016. Kim is an inspirational figure in the world of travel, having co-founded the GET (Gender Equal Travel) group with three other industry women – Stephanie Taylor-Carrillo of Sandeman hostels, Anne Dolan of Clink Hostels and Marie Louise Henny of Hans Brinker hostels.
“We were sitting in Serbia at a travel show and were amazed at the all-male line-up of speakers at the show, and how few women were represented in senior roles, despite the travel industry being predominantly female. We decided to do something, and started GET. We’ve since registered a non-profit in Holland, hosting regular meet-ups for women in travel, promoting mentorship and recommending female speakers to conferences.” – Kim
The Once hostels are social spots adored by solo travellers, with modern amenities and fun freebies like traditional braai BBQs, yoga classes and ‘no power hours’, a party with free drinks for anyone who doesn’t bring their phone. This open and welcoming environment is what Kim is most proud of:
“I love the synergy between people from all around the world. In a time where nationalism and racism seems to be the order of the day, I love walking into a place which encourages free conversations and dialogue between travellers. Connecting in an old-school, authentic way, expanding minds, learning about new cultures and understanding different ways of viewing the world.”
📷 ONCE in Joburg
Alongside Once’s Duty Manager Asanda Daraza, Kim also co-founded the non-profit organisation Khwela, meaning ‘to climb’ in local language isiXhosa. Its aim is to combat youth unemployment in South Africa through training and mentoring young women from disadvantaged communities, providing them with the skills to work in the tourism industry. The program involves a 6-month paid internship and a three-week road trip through South Africa.
Our 2020 goal? Be more Kim!
3. Tatjana Pia Benkert – owner of The Purpose Hostel – Antigua, Guatemala
Before The Purpose Hostel opened in spring 2018, Tatjana was looking for a way to combine her love for travel with something that could make a positive impact in her city, giving Purpose (😉) to the community. “I said a few years ago that opening a hostel is the last thing I would ever do, but that’s the beauty of life! After a wild rollercoaster ride here I am, part of a diverse team of passionate individuals not only working together in a hostel, but working towards a better future for ourselves and our community.” – Tatjana
📷 The Purpose Hostel team – Tatjana top middle
In The Purpose Hostel, Tatjana and her business partners created an eco-friendly, socially conscious project with a focus on wellness and nature – it’s surrounded by three volcanoes which guests can gaze at while doing yoga on the roof! Their community work includes providing after school help to single mothers working at the city’s markets, growing crops for the elderly on their rooftop garden and providing education and employment training to locals at their on-site skills centre. They invite guests to volunteer with them in the area, using a ‘pay it forward’ system to spread the positive vibes:
“For every 10 hours a guest spends volunteering with us in our community, The Purpose Hostel gives a free night to a fellow traveller. Everybody wins! We’re not just a hostel, but so much more too. We’re a diverse, dedicated, mostly female group, who focus on a ‘pay it forward’ approach while learning and growing together.
For example, we’re all learning Guatemalan sign language together and we welcome our guests to join in on the fun with free sign language lessons. The single mothers and children we support through our after-school program also attend. Why Guatemalan sign language you might wonder? We work with deaf team members and one of my business partners is deaf.” – Tatjana
The difference that Tatjana and her team are making to people’s lives is astounding. If backpacking Guatemala is in your 2020 backpacking plans, volunteering with them in Antigua is an experience that’s rewarding and fun in equal measure.
📷 The Purpose Hostel
What advice would Tatjana give to young female leaders?
“You just don’t know – you don’t know what you’re capable of, and you don’t know what life has in store for you. Just show up for yourself and your community and amazing things can happen!”
4. Tizia Basener – owner of Nyumbani Hostel – Arusha, Tanzania
Nyumbani means ‘at home’ in Swahili, and it’s the motto that Tizia and her team live by. She started the hostel in 2015 without a big budget but armed with a passion for hostels developed on her travels through Latin America, India and Europe, and a love for her husband Tini’s home country Tanzania. They bought a new bed for their family home which they rented out to travellers, saving the money to buy an extra bed each time. Fast forward to today, their family home has 22 beds that sleep nomads from all over the world!
📷 Tizia, Tini and their son
Tizia says that welcoming guests as part of the Nyumbani family is one of the most rewarding things about running her hostel. But it’s not just a cosy spot to spend a night – Tizia and Tini also do important work in their community.
“In Tanzania there is still much need to improve daily life, especially for vulnerable people. We founded Viva Tanzania in order to support local NGOs, offering volunteer work and internships. We support 14 different projects in Arusha in the fields of education, women’s rights, youth empowerment, healthcare, disability care, animal welfare and environmental conservation. From July onwards we are planning to build a Nursery School for disadvantaged Maasai children. We are currently collecting donations and are excited about the support we are receiving.” – Tizia
You might think that managing incredible projects like this takes a pretty sensational support network – and you’d be right. Tizia says “without our employees our hostel would not be the same. We have our manager who takes care that everything is running smoothly, our two Mamas who are excellent cooks who also keep the hostel clean and tidy, and lovely staff who do whatever is needed, like driving, guiding or being watch guards in the night.”
📷 Nyumbani Hostel
Tizia returns this support by making sure her staff always feel valued in an economy that isn’t always stable. They’re paid above minimum wage and are offered help to build their houses, provided with electricity and running water and assisted with costs surrounding weddings and sickness. Every employee’s child is sent to private school, funded not only by the hostel but also through the donations of guests and volunteers!
5. Marina Moretti – owner of Ô de Casa Hostel Bar – São Paulo, Brazil
Back in 2007, Marina wasn’t happy about the fact her city was being overlooked by the majority of backpackers in South America. “There were no independent traveller hostels in São Paulo and the Brazil edition of Lonely Planet only dedicated 5 of its 500 pages to the city. People just didn’t come here and I knew what a great city it was!” At the time, she was living with friends in the ultra-cool neighbourhood of Vila Madalena, and they had the crazy idea to transform their student house into a hostel. “We made it nice, published it on Hostelworld and people started coming!”
They certainly did. Ô de Casa quickly became one of the continent’s most popular hostels, raking in plenty of HOSCARs over the years including best hostel in Brazil. So, what was the secret to Marina’s success?
“Ô de Casa has never been thought of as a business, it’s more like a community. We care for people working here as if we’re a big family with relatives all around the globe, made up of people who worked here in different periods. We invite every guest that steps through our doors to be part of this family and to live a life of fun while they’re here.” – This fun starts with free caipirinhas on arrival and ends up in cachaça pong and parties on the roof!
Ô de Casa’s location in vibrant, bohemian Vila Madalena is a massive part of its identity, so Marina is eager to give back to the neighbourhood as much as possible, hiring locally, stocking local products in the bar and promoting events in the area. She’s proud that there’s no gender pay gap between her employees.
📷 Ô de Casa
We asked Marina her advice for the next generation of female leaders:
“Whatever it is, follow your heart and just do it. Starting my own business changed my life – opening a hostel is like starting your own little world and we get to become part of the history of everyone who comes to stay with us. If you can create a community, there’s nothing nicer or more rewarding to do with your life. You’ll meet wonderful women along the way who will raise you up – people like to put women in competition with one another, but in reality we couldn’t be more supportive.”
6. Stephanie Duenker – owner of Cloudcroft Mountain Park Hostel – New Mexico, USA
Hostelling is in Stephanie’s DNA. Her grandparents ran and lived in a hostel while she was growing up in Germany and she spent lots of time there and in other hostels around the country with her family. Her early travel memories sowed the seeds that led to her eventually opening a hostel in the Sacramento Mountains – “I always loved countryside hostels in unusual places, like old castles in Scotland or romantic villas in Italy”. Cloudcroft Hostel’s location is certainly unusual, at an altitude of 6,700 feet and surrounded by 28 acres of forest with endless hiking trails on its doorstep.
But what’s most impressive about this cosy remote hostel is how it got there in the first place – Stephanie and her partner at the time built the entire thing from scratch!
“We found the space in 2001 after looking for months for the perfect spot for our hostel and home. The property we found had been abandoned years ago and was full of junk, but being an architect, I saw its potential. We demolished and totally rebuilt the house – all 6000 square foot of it! We overdid ourselves and ran out of money after one year, so I went back to work full time and built at the weekends, which is why it took five years to eventually open up the hostel in 2006. In 2014 I began running the hostel by myself, and now in 2020 I’ve finally got Cloudcroft to be exactly as I always imagined!”
Cloudcroft is a true labour of love, something that’s obvious to every guest who’s welcomed by Stephanie. “I manage, book and clean the hostel all by myself. I have no employees, so often I let guests check in when I’m not around. I like to trust people and so far people didn’t disappoint me!”
Okay, we’re exhausted just hearing about Stephanie’s dedication! So, what makes all the hard work worth it?
“I love it when travellers stay at the hostel for the first time, fall in love with it, come back or ask for recommendations. It makes me so happy to hear random strangers sitting together, talking and laughing!”
7. Veronika Karacova – owner of Caveland – Santorini, Greece
Santorini is one of the world’s most stunning destinations – those whitewashed buildings, lantern-lit streets and ocean views are the stuff our travel dreams are made of. As its popularity began to boom, Veronika and her husband had the idea to open a hostel in the village of Karterados, away from the typical tourist spots. They wanted to stay true to tradition without skipping any of the beauty and luxury that Santorini is famous for. So, in 2011, Caveland was born!
“Caveland is under heritage protection, as it’s a fine example of typical local architecture. Our rooms are traditional Santorinian caves – inhabitable holes dug into the ground. We have 10 in total, and the architecture, design and decoration is unique for every single one. Our place has loads of character…springtime at Caveland is especially beautiful, because the flowers are in bloom and our quiet corners are filled with the most colourful plants.” – Veronika
Every corner of Caveland is special, from its reading nooks to ocean-view terraces and pastel-hued pool area. All its quirky furnishings are sourced sustainably, with Veronika scouring local flea markets and upcycling as much as possible. No generic flat-packed stuff here!
Community vibes and social events are a massive part of the Caveland experience, with cooking nights, group trips out to local restaurants, yoga classes twice a week and yoga retreats outside of peak season. Veronika says that building a global family is one of her favourite things about owning a hostel – “I am proud to know so many great people from around the world who considered Caveland their home. Our staff are the heart of the hostel, and every person that worked for us left their footprint here.”
📷 Caveland – @gabriellabezeau
So, which other awesome women inspired Veronika to become the boss that she is?
“I’m lucky to have incredible women in my life – my Mum, my Aunt, many girlfriends. Once a year we do a girls only trip and it’s a very inspiring time for me. We share stories about our lives, we discuss politics, work, philosophy, we talk about books we’re reading, we share stories about our kids and families. My kids are my biggest teachers, I’ve learned from them to be more patient and live in the moment.”
8. Marina Hamzah – owner of Hikers Sleep Port – Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
In the heart of Malaysia’s epic Cameron Highlands, surrounded by endless emerald hills and tea plantations, Hikers Sleep Port is proudly run by Marina, who lives in the hostel with her husband and four children. With a background in hospitality, she was disappointed by the lack of affordable accommodation in Tanah Rata, the part of the region where her husband often worked as a nature guide, sleeping in his car to avoid pricey hotels! They were inspired to open their ‘home away from home’ hostel, a place for travellers to embrace a ‘local Malaysian way of living’.
“We’ve taken everything we love about our culture to create a hostel with Malay house concepts. We serve local Malaysian breakfast which we cook personally in our kitchen, so our guests wake up to the smells of fried noodles, fried rice and homemade kaya (coconut jam), prepared with love every morning. We live in the hostel where we host our global ‘family’, so we’re always there to welcome our guests at any time!” – Marina
Being in such a spectacular location (seriously, if you don’t know about the Cameron Highlands, Google them right now), Marina feels that it’s important to support environmental projects that help the area and allow its magnificence to be shared with as many people as possible.
“We sponsor and have maintained a recycling centre nearby since last year. We work closely with the Forestry Department of Cameron Highland, establishing a new hiking trail to Mount Brinchang Barat which is the second highest peak here. In 2018, we enhanced the trail to Mount Irau which is one of the oldest and most beautiful forests in the world, making it safer and more convenient for hikers. We do this free of charge because of our love for nature.”
📷 Cameron Highlands – Marina
Alongside their work improving the Highlands, Hikers Sleep Port also supports indigenous people in the region through community projects, renovating local facilities like libraries and playgrounds and helping to organise English lessons. “At the same time, we learn a lot about their culture” – Marina.
9. Melissa Oconitrillo – owner of Capital Hostel de Ciudad – San José, Costa Rica
Three years ago, Melissa had enough of working 12-hour shifts at a hotel and knew that her passion for travel was being wasted in the wrong place. “I started feeling the need to open a place that gave back to our city – San José had an undeserved reputation for not offering anything special or cultural, and I thought that wasn’t fair. I wanted to encourage people to stay longer in San José and to live the local experiences that I fall in love with every day”. The chic boutique hostels that are found throughout Costa Rica were few and far between in the capital, and Melissa thought it was time to raise the standard.
Along came Capital Hostel de Ciudad, a design-led hostel full of loving touches and chiller-than-chill vibes, offering events and walking tours to showcase the excellence of San José. And next to this innovative female hostel owner every step of the way was another brilliant woman – her mum Mercedes!
📷 Melissa and Mercedes
“Having my mom as part of this team is so important. She provides stability and maturity that only life experience can give you. We get along, she’s always so chill and even though she didn’t have a background in hospitality, customer service just runs through her veins. Everyone who knows her can tell you she’s smiles and laughs 24/7. She also LOVES to travel, meet new cultures and try food from all over the world. Like mother, like daughter!” – Melissa
So, what advice does Melissa have for the next generation of female leaders?
“Ignore every bit of self-doubt – if you don’t lose focus of your goals, everything will work out in the end. Stop caring what people think! I’ve never followed what society expects from women. I’m in my 30s, not married and I don’t have kids, but this project is what completes me. My hostel lets me positively impact people’s lives and to me, that is everything.”
📷 Capital Hostel de Ciudad
Who else is feeling empowered after hearing from these amazing female hostel owners? Let’s follow in their footsteps and be the best leaders, innovators and adventurers we can be. The patriarchy isn’t gonna smash itself!