Hostel Beirut: no-frills refuge on a budget

BEIRUT: Hostel Beirut occupies the second apartment of an old concrete duplex in Beirut’s residential Geitawi neighborhood. There’s little sign that the budget refuge opened last week, except for its name scribbled next to the ground-floor doorbell and – if looking closely – a utility bunk bed peeking through a window on the fourth floor that one might spot from the street. Hostel Beirut is buried in the labyrinth of churches, shoe shops and corner stores that make up the old neighborhood on Beirut’s eastern border. And that is sort of the point, founder Kris Paulsen explains.

“It’s a little bit like a private home,” he says. “Everyone is welcome. ... People can come and sit and work and meet others and talk to them. We want to enhance the standing between different cultures.”

The quaint accommodations – 18 simple beds – stand in stark contrast to the crop of luxury hotels sprouting up in Downtown. Both have defied plummeting tourism and low occupancy rates. But unlike big-name chain hotels, Hostel Beirut caters to a demographic that is likely to keep “roughing it” in Lebanon no matter the security situation: namely backpackers, short-term students and volunteers.

Since the second week of February, Hostel Beirut has had two guests and has two more booked for the coming week.

The accommodations are as straightforward as the name: three dorm rooms fitting six guests each, a communal shower room with three private stalls, two bathrooms (though one needs renovating), a communal kitchen, patio and an open living-dining room. A night’s stay ($18) includes breakfast, which Paulsen supplies by popping down to the local mankousheh shop.

Inspired by the Arabic institute-cum-hostel model that worked so well at Saifi Urban Gardens, which Paulsen refers to as the “mastodon” of local hostels, he set up ties with the ALPS language school in Hamra to facilitate enrollment for bunkers.

Besides accommodating drowsy foreigners, Paulsen invested in high-speed Wi-Fi to attract a daytime clientele of long-term expats and Lebanese locals – likely of the bohemian variety – interested in a coffee-and-work environment and open to meeting the latest bunkers. He’s in the process of getting the cafe aspect of the hostel up and running, but he’s welcoming people to stop by and work at the hostel’s massive dining table in the meantime.

Paulsen’s also set his sights on the building’s roof: “In Beirut, everywhere has to have a rooftop right?”

The roof is still just the usual slab of concrete topped with water tanks and a confusing jumble of tubes. But Paulsen is thinking of upgrading his cafe workspace idea to become a laundry cafe, where the crowd of young foreigners who densely occupy Geitawi can work and do their laundry in tandem on the roof.

The laundromat concept hasn’t taken in Beirut, though there are dry cleaners where loads of clothes can be washed relatively cheaply.

“I think most foreigners would like to do their own laundry,” he says.

And really, who better to run a travelers’ dormitory than an itinerant foreigner? Paulsen, 36, hails from Denmark and came to Lebanon a year ago with the same intentions as his target clientele. He studied Arabic for two months in hopes of brushing up on language studies that had gathered dust since he left university and later decided to plant some roots.

Before coming here, Paulsen was on the other side of the world teaching English in Brazil. He now plans to use Hostel Beirut’s profits to provide scholarships for Syrians studying at Lebanese universities.

“For the most part, Syrians can go to school and high school for free, but if they want to go to university they have to pay,” he says.

Paulsen is also interested in community building. In the first week, he launched what he hopes will become a monthly potluck where Lebanese, Syrians, foreign workers and travelers of all stripes can meet and eat.

He has a lot of ideas for when the hostel starts bringing in steady business, such as bottle collection and recycling from the bar crawl in nearby Mar Mikhael. Paulsen has invested $20,000 so far in the project and he anticipates topping $40,000 before it’s complete.

“It’s nice to give more business to the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s important for the foreigners who come here to see real Lebanese people trying to make a living.”

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 18, 2014, on page 2.




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