How youth hostels in India are redefining tourism through Instagram and authenticity

Hamsini Shivakumar and Prabhjot Singh Gambhir of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting, write, how today's youth hostels aren't merely piggybacking on prevalent travel themes and symbols of ‘tourist destinations'; they're in fact pioneering novel narratives around travel and tourism

Hamsini Shivakumar
New Update
Post Thumb

Tourism is an intricate dance between expectation, culture, and experience. Today’s traveller, armed with a smartphone and influenced by Instagram, navigates a world where authentic experiences are often sought, yet simultaneously curated. Jonathan Culler's insights in a paper titled "The Semiotics of Tourism" provide a fascinating lens. He notes that tourist preferences might be driven more by embedded cultural and semiotic codes than mere whims.

There exists a prevalent bias against tourists in travel, with many seeking to differentiate between "true travellers" and mere tourists. This binary is shown to be an inherent part of the tourism experience, as many are desperate to assert themselves as authentic travellers and not "ordinary" tourists.

The distinction between a traveller and a tourist in the popular imagination is that while the former actively seeks experience and adventure, the latter is more passive, looking for experiences to be presented to them. Culler notes that even in the 19th century, travellers often looked down upon tourists, seeing them as lesser or inauthentic. This denigration of tourists has always existed, with every category of traveller feeling superior to another. 

A prominent feature of modern tourism is the irony that while there's a global consensus on what's deemed "worth seeing," this shared value doesn't bring tourists closer together. Instead, it often results in mutual disdain as they each wish for fewer tourists around them. The pursuit of "authenticity" is another dominant theme. Despite accusations of tourists being content with the superficial or inauthentic, many seek genuine experiences, as evidenced by the constant advertising of off-the-beaten-path experiences. In essence, the line between authenticity and inauthenticity, as it pertains to tourist attractions, plays a crucial role in the structure and appeal of tourism.

In recent years, India has experienced a significant surge in its travel industry. Historically, the subcontinent has always been a magnet for travellers. However, the last decade has witnessed a transformational shift not just in the number of travellers but in the nature and ethos of travelling itself – with the advent of backpackers. This metamorphosis is primarily driven by India's own youth, who are venturing out to explore their country’s vastness and diversity.

With this in mind, the pertinent question that does arise is how do youth hostels in India, like Zostel, GoSTOPS, and The Hosteller, shape their identity in marketing communications? Especially on social media platforms such as Instagram.

Zostel Linguistic Integration and Cultural Immersion

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Zostel (@zostel)

Zostel's "Zostel Experiences" taps into a specific cultural niche with its use of 'Hinglish'. This isn't just a stylistic choice, but a deliberate move to resonate with urban Indian youth’s linguistic landscape, thereby appealing to both domestic and international audiences. It signifies a casual tone and speaks to a broader cultural assimilation, indicating an awareness of its target demographic - the urban youth. It’s a calculated embrace of a linguistic style deeply resonant with urban India, offering global travellers a genuine taste of contemporary Indian youth culture.

But Zostel goes beyond linguistic charm. The content showcases guests interacting with the local environment, suggesting an emphasis on experiential travel. They also share images of guests indulging in local festivities, feasting on indigenous cuisines, or sharing travel anecdotes, building a story. It's a story where Zostel isn’t just a temporary lodging; it’s the beating heart of a traveller’s Indian journey, who likes to immerse themselves in the cultural zeitgeist of the destination.

GoSTOPS:  Digital Narratives and Influencer Collaborations

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Rajat singh (@rjsinghhh)

GoSTOPS' use of Instagram Reels showcases a strategic adaptation to evolving digital trends. The short-form visuals suggest an understanding of the platform's audience and their preferences. The reels showcase exotic locations. These short, enticing visuals offer travellers a voyeuristic journey, making them feel as if they're already a part of the adventure.

GoSTOPS also collaborates with various travel influencers. By collaborating with different influencers, GoSTOPS is aligning itself with established travel narratives, further increasing its credibility in the market. Their imagery, depicting markets and landscapes, aligns with the modern tourist's search for 'authentic' experiences.

But they're not just leveraging influencers for their wide reach. Their collaborations with travel influencers also paint GoSTOPS not just as a stay, but as a part of the larger travel community. With visuals of bustling markets and serene landscapes, GoSTOPS subtly nudges the modern tourist to explore the semiotic codes of 'authentic' travel.

The Hosteller: Exploration

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by The Hosteller (@thehosteller)

The Hosteller, through its high-quality drone shots and English narratives, positions itself uniquely—a premium abode for those seeking adventure. Their visuals emphasize offbeat locales, capturing both the landscape's grandeur and the intimate experiences of backpackers with a distinct promise.

This promise isn't just about upscale accommodation. By promoting itself as a 'companion in exploration,' The Hosteller isn't just offering a bed—it's offering a narrative. It beckons travellers to venture into lesser-known terrains while not compromising on their premium experience, thus constructing an identity of exclusivity amidst the vast travel domain.


Tourism offers a unique lens through which to study the semiotic relationships between signs, symbols, and reality. Rather than seeing symbols as a corruption of direct experience, semiotics acknowledges that our experiences, especially in tourism, are always mediated by signs and symbols. The markers, or symbols that denote authenticity in tourism not only help define sights but also often become attractions in their own right. For example, structures like the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building serve as both destinations and symbols of their respective cities.

However, today’s youth hostels aren’t merely piggybacking on prevalent travel themes and symbols of ‘tourist destinations’; they’re pioneering novel narratives. Through meticulously curated content, they challenge and reshape preconceived notions that tourists primarily seek artificial experiences. Instead, they're offering a blend of the familiar and the novel, crafting a semiotic playground that resonates with authenticity and allure.

In the dynamic landscape of travel, these hostels are not only redefining accommodation but are challenging the essence of tourism. Social media, particularly platforms like Instagram, plays a pivotal role in this redefinition. With each post, story, or reel, these youth hostels are curating a digital realm where modern travellers can reconcile the dual desires for authenticity and comfort. In this dance between the digital and the real, between expectation and experience, they're sculpting the future of tourism—one Instagram post at a time. They’re rearticulating what it means to travel, to discover, and to belong.

Actionable insights:

  1. Instagram reels are a good way to market the promise of an ‘authentic’ travel experience by the hostel.
  2. Voyeuristic videos make the audience feel like they’re part of a tribe of unique travel enthusiasts.
  3. Showcasing a tourist's immersion in the place's culture elevates the credibility of the hostel.
  4. Featuring solo travellers and female travellers in the video can emphasise the safety that the hostel offers.
  5. Covering a traveller’s exploration of the city makes you feel like you are part of an experience, but also encourages you to go to the destination to fully immerse yourself in it.
  6. Showcasing youth-centric activities in comms encourages audience engagement.
Instagram Hamsini Shivakumar Leapfrog Strategy Consulting Tourism Travel youth hostels travellers Reel