ALL three youth hostels in the Borders are to close in what has been described as “a crushing blow” for the region.
This week’s announcement by SYHA Hostelling Scotland confirmed speculation highlighted in these columns last month that the 80-berth Priorwood Hostel in Melrose would not reopen after the winter break.
It now transpires that, not only will that facility be sacrificed, but also the hostels at Kirk Yetholm and Broadmeadows – Scotland’s first ever youth hostel which opened in 1931 – at Yarrowford near Selkirk.
When TheSouthern broke the story, an SYHA spokesperson conceded all 46 hostels in its network were under review.
On Tuesday came confirmation that, as a result of that exercise, the organisation had earmarked the closure of the three Borders hostels, along with its accommodation units at Arden on Loch Lomondside and Canisbay in Caithness.
An SYHA statement said: “We intend to enhance the future performance and long-term sustainability of our network of youth hostels ... by closing five of our existing hostels to make the improvements necessary to meet rising customer expectations and to compete with recent increases in the quality and quantity of low- budget accommodation.”
The statement claimed the five locations had been selected “as they are failing to attract a viable number of guests ... in addition, where they are in a poor state of repair, insufficient funds exist to refurbish them in a sustainable way”.
Melrose councillor Nicholas Watson said that after TheSouthern article appeared, he had been contacted by SYHA chief executive Keith Legge and a meeting was arranged in Melrose on Monday.
Low occupancy, said Mr Watson, was at the heart of the SYHA decision: 35 per cent in Melrose, 29 per cent at Kirk Yetholm and just 13 per cent at Broadmeadows.
“We heard that Melrose needed £1.5million spent on renovation but, even if funds could be found, unless occupancy was to rise signficantly, this would be very hard to justify.”
Mr Watson said Melrose and Kirk Yetholm would close in January, although it was possible Broadmeadows could stay open for another season.
“The sort of accommodation which visitors want has changed a lot over recent years,” said Mr Watson. “It may be more difficulut for large groups to find somewhere, but there is no shortage of beds in the Borders and many of the new self-catering conversions in steadings have more facilities than hostels can offer.
“However, we must not forget that the hostels have serviced many visitors to the Borders for many years and it is very sad to see Broadmeadows on the list.”
Sandy Hellowell, regional director of VisitScotland said: “We are disappointed to hear of SYHA’s decision to close all these hostels, but we understand the tough decisions many companies are having to face in this difficult financial time.
“All locations are very important, particularly for those using popular walks such as the Pennine Way [Kirk Yetholm], St Cuthbert’s Way [Melrose and Kirk Yetholm] and the Southern Upland Way [Melrose and Broadmeadows].
“Touring, cycling and walking are significant markets for the Borders and with the rise of staycations this year, more and more visitors will be looking for value-for-money accommodation.”
Christine Grahame MSP, whose constituency includes Melrose, told us: “For the Borders to lose all three of its youth hostels at one fell swoop is a crushing blow when the region will have to rely on tourism to an even greater extent in future.
“To compound the issue we have the opening of the Borders railway in the not too distant future. I would expect the return of train services to produce an influx of tourists who might not otherwise find their way into the Borders, including backpackers and cyclists. So closing the hostels smacks of short-termism; investment in the facilities would be the best option, even though times are hard.”
Selkirkshire councillor Carolyn Riddell-Carre said: “Peoples’ habits move on and change. Where once people were content to stay in youth hostels, now they prefer to be cosily installed in a local B&B. This is good news for local B&Bs, but I cannot help feeling sorry that the oldest youth hostel in Scotland is passing into history.”
Mr Legge commented: “While it is always sad to lose some iconic and longstanding hostels, the reality is that SYHA has to make responsible decisions to support our charitable aims. As a not for profit, self-funding organisation, we have a duty to make the best use of scarce resources to ensure a sustainable future.”