In 1974, after the Yom Kippur War, my best friend, Arnon Amid, and I found it difficult to return to our MBA studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem after being released from six months of war-time military service as if nothing had happened. So, one day, as we sat on the campus grass, Amid, who at the time still was known as Arnon Zalman, suddenly said out of the blue, “Let’s go to India.” We left everything and made our way to a Far East that still had seen very few Israelis – so few that people were really excited to meet us and showered us with questions. (The station manager at Ahmadabad in southern India wanted to know how the Histadrut, Israel’s national labor union, owns factories and at the same time represents the workers – those were really different times.)
After nearly a year of traveling around the world, to Japan, Hawaii, across the continental US, and through Europe, we returned to Israel. I became the head of the Israeli Tour Guide School and he opened a youth hostel for travelers in the Jaffa Flea Market: the Old Jaffa Hostel and Guest House. He was well ahead of the times. Backpackers still were not that common in Israel and the Jaffa Flea Market was eons away from being the trendy place it is today.
Of course, there already were hostels in Israel by then; the Israel Youth Hostel Association (IYHA) was founded in 1937. In the beginning, the hostels that belonged to IYHA were designed to enhance the knowledge of the land of groups of youths, especially groups from schools. They had very basic facilities that could host many young people at once.
Over the last decade, the IYHA hostels have evolved into much more comfortable hotels, with private guest rooms and even swimming pools. The Masada Youth Hostel, originally a collection of huts in the simmering sun near the Dead Sea, is today a large, modern, fully air-conditioned building with a swimming pool, nice dining room, and a view of the Dead Sea on one side and Masada on the other. IYHA’s latest addition, the Acre Youth Hostel, is a sleek, modern building smack in the center of the Old City of Acre. It boasts 76 guest rooms and a rooftop terrace with a view of the Old City.
However, back in the mid-1970s, when Amid decided to open the Old Jaffa Hostel, there was nothing like it in Israel. His idea of a privately owned youth hostel that caters to backpackers was solid even then. A few other mavericks followed his lead, together filling the growing need for clean, inexpensive accommodations. In the 1990s, Amid opened a sister hostel in Jerusalem on Zion Square. The hostels’ success proved there was a demand. They were full, so full that at times Amid offered travelers a place to sleep on the roof, which became extremely popular at both his hostels.
“We were always non-mainstream. The Ministry of Tourism did not acknowledge that we existed and of course did not help with marketing and development,” he says.
Instead Amid worked through the backpacker networks, got his hostels listed in Lonely Planet (then still a travel book for backpackers), and went online very early.
“We get our orders by email, dozens come in every day – and the hostel is generally full. Many are also walk-ins, people who just show up, which is common in Europe, but not so much in Israel,” he adds.
By the twenty-first century, Amid’s groundbreaking work began to inspire others in the backpacking world. In 2004, Maoz Inon opened the Fauzi Azar Inn in the Old City of Nazareth and other hostels sprung up in the Old City of Acre, the Old City of Jerusalem, and most of all the new city of Tel Aviv. Half a dozen backpacking hostels opened their doors in Tel Aviv to a growing audience – that began to swell due to the advent of low-cost flights, first to Jordan and eventually to Israel.
Gal Mor is typical of the young Israeli entrepreneurs who are moving into the hostel world. He spent a significant part of his youth in Canada, went backpacking for a few months after high school, served in the IDF, and then set out for the traditional post-army backpacking trip around the world. He returned to Israel to study international relations and media at the Hebrew University. After the intensity of university, he and his wife went to live in Berlin from 2004 to 2007, when it was just beginning to become cool and the community of Israeli expats there had not yet ballooned to its current proportions.
“On Christmas Day 2004, we went on a free walking tour offered by what was then a new and growing company called New Europe Tours and guided by its CEO. Since most of the people on the tour were tourists, while we had just moved to Berlin, we ended up becoming friends with him. His idea is to offer free walking tours of city centers at the end of which tourists pay the guide whatever tip they feel is appropriate. I did some work for him in Berlin and when we returned to Israel in 2007, we established the company’s first branch outside of Europe,” Mor recalls.
In 2009, he left New Europe Tours and established the Indie Travelers’ Center in the Old City of Jerusalem to provide information to young independent travelers coming to Israel. To cover operating expenses, this center also filled another need that was not being addressed fully at the time since Israel’s tourism industry is organized around group tours: offering regional tours to free independent travelers (FITs). New Europe Tours only gives walking tours within cities, but people were asking for tours to northern Israel and Petra.
“I started finding small local operators that provide tours at a good price. So people would take a free tour with New Europe Tours and then come back to the Indie Travelers’ Center afterwards to enjoy the free internet and coffee and collect information and some of them would sign up for a follow-up tour to the north or Petra,” Mor explains.
Through the travel center, Mor got to know Inon as well as Yaron Burgin, Nitzan Kimchi, and Dror Tishler. Today the five young entrepreneurs are partners in two businesses that cater to FITs: the Abraham Hostel and Abraham Tours. Their story really began when Inon founded the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth and marked out the Jesus trail from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee. This was significant not only because he established infrastructure for FITs, but also because he did it in the periphery, where there was a need to create a market. That was a groundbreaking move that led other guesthouses to open in Nazareth. Inon welcomes this development; all five partners share a social agenda of contributing to the areas in which they operate.
The next chapter began when Inon and Burgin teamed up to establish Israel Hostels (ILH), a network of independent Israeli hostels with European standards of cleanliness, a backpackers’ vibe, and affordable rates. ILH, which today has about 30 members, also conducts workshops on how to operate an independent hostel. Seven or eight new hostels have opened throughout Israel as a result in places like Jisr ez-Zarqa on the coast just north of Caesarea, the Golan Heights, and Tel Aviv.
“We feel that competition grows the market. There was a market for this, but it was very neglected and promoting the right kind of hostels will grow the market,” Mor says.
Juha’s Guesthouse, the tiny hostel that Neta Hanien and Ahmad Hasan (Juha) Jubran teamed up to open in 2013 in the seaside village of Jisr ez-Zarqa, which is inhabited mainly by descendants of marsh Arabs, is a prime example of this. With three guest rooms that can accommodate just over a dozen guests and a living room, kitchen, showers, and toilets that are shared by all the guests, it is basic, comfortable, and a short walk from a gorgeous beach that tourists rarely visit. Even though the village is located near the popular tourism destinations of Caesarea and Zichron Yaakov, few tourists set foot in Jisr ez-Zarqa before Jubran and Hanien turned an office on the second floor of a building that Jubran’s family owns into a hostel. It is just above the café that Jubran has been operating for a decade.
“I attended a seminar for hostels that ILH ran and we are cooperating with Maoz, who started the Fauzi Azar Inn, and see that as a model,” Hanien says. “Maoz is a great role model and helps us a lot. They refer guests to us and we do the same. We cooperate and we encourage people to tour the region. We are interested in responsible tourism that gets people involved. We see that more and more people are coming to this area and are looking for stuff to do. The owner of one of the local vegetable shops called up Juha thrilled because some of his guests bought vegetables at his shop.”
Jubran adds, “If the guest house makes a profit, that’s great, but our goal is to bring people here to patronize the local businesses and encourage more businesses to open.”
These ideas prompted Mor and his partners to open a hostel themselves, the Abraham Hostel, which has become one of the most popular hostels in Jerusalem. It is located near the city center in the building where the Israel Youth Hostels Association (IYHA) operated the Davidka hostel until the second intifada. After the IYHA hostel closed, the building was used for a while as a dorm for Hadassah Academic College and then served as studio apartments for new immigrants.
“It was very neglected when we found it. However, since it had once been a hostel, it had the infrastructure for us to turn it into a successful hostel,” Mor says.
The Abraham Hostel was operating at almost full capacity before Operation Protective Edge last summer, with occupancy rates of about 90%. During the military operation, occupancy dropped dramatically. By October, guests were returning and occupancy rates have been slowly building up since then, though have not yet reached the pre-conflict level.
Today the Abraham Hostel has a social atmosphere, with both shared and private rooms that can accommodate 260 guests and common spaces that encourage guests to interact, such as a kitchen where they can cook together and a dining room where they can eat together.
“Our guests generally are ages 25-40, but we are open to all and we have guests aged 60-80 and we have families, though we do not host guests under 18 unless they are with their parents,” Mor says.
“Hostels traditionally are very cheap and provide very little. The Abraham Hostel is on the high end of the hostel price scale, but we are very clean, have a nice bar, and have a boutique feel.”
The success of their hostel in Jerusalem inspired the five partners to open a hostel in Tel Aviv. Work currently is underway on the Abraham Hostel Tel Aviv, which will have the capacity to host 390 guests and is slated to open later this year.
Mor and his partners rely on the internet and technology a great deal to promote their hostel.
“There are many platforms online and we have a strong presence on a number of them, which is important. Our guests today are savvy and so they check you out on multiple platforms and if they see good reviews on TripAdvisor and bad reviews on another site, they are deterred. They want to see consistency in reviews across the different platforms,” he explains. “They also are not interested in the very short reviews that just say a place is great – they look for comments about things that are important to them, such as cleanliness, and will stay at a place that has good comments on those things. We respond to comments and criticism on websites very quickly.”
About 60-70% of reservations for the Abraham Hostel are made online directly on its website or by phone and not through a reservations website. The rest come from reservations websites, mainly Booking.com and Hostelworld.com, but also from Expedia and smaller sites.
“We put a lot of effort into persuading people to book directly with us either online or by phone,” Mor explains. “We ran a campaign to encourage people to do this, with a video that explains the problems of using a booking site and promising guests who booked directly a free drink and to donate part of what they pay us to a charity they select from a list of four or five that we picked. We donated close to NIS 30,000 from a four- or five-month campaign and a lot of people got a free drink at the bar.
“There are a few problems with the booking sites. First of all, they take a large commission. Second, when they provide you with too many guests, you become so dependent on them that they kind of take over your business and dictate to you. Plus you do not develop your own marketing efforts and are less visible, so you grow even more dependent on them. Third, when you sign up with them you have to sign an agreement that you cannot undercut them in prices. So you have to offer all the booking agents the same price and offer that price yourself, which means that the booking agents create a monopoly situation with regard to the price.”
This internet monopoly of orders is very problematic, Mor says, adding, “We have been encouraging the Israeli hotel association to ask the Israeli antitrust authority to investigate this.”
The last chapter thus far in the five partners’ initiative is Abraham Tours, which actually builds on Mor’s earlier initiative, the Indie Travelers’ Center.
“In the tours, we try to offer a cultural experience,” he says. “We do not really offer tours with a guide, but transportation to a site and a free app that people can download and use to get information about what they want to see as they wander around the site on their own. To complete it and make it an experience, we bring along things like dates and herbs to make tea outside on our chill out tour to the Dead Sea or make black coffee over a campfire on our Negev tour.
“Our tours are for budget travelers who take low-cost flights and are not worried about going somewhere without having a guide. To the contrary, they do not want to be herded around with a group and told when to buy things, eat, and use the toilet, however, they do want things to be accessible, cheap, easy, and fast.
“People also want to go to the West Bank so we try to provide West Bank tours that are experiential and creative,” he continues. “Our tours are unique because they are dual narrative tours. For example, we take people to Hebron and arrange for them to meet with members of the Jewish community and then with members of the Arab community. We work with local guides that we source and who work exclusively with us. Most of the tours are offered by nonprofits that have an agenda and only show one side, while we encourage people to explore all the different narratives and formulate their own conclusions. I mainly want to make people understand the complexity of the situation.
“We also provide tours three times a week to Petra that leave from Jerusalem, as compared to Eilat, and transportation to the border with Jordan plus help people cross the border. This is a new service, but so far we have been taking groups of up to 16 and on Passover, we had four groups. We get an average of 10-15 people per group.
“We constantly monitor the responses we get, gathering information and feedback both online and directly from customers, and then tweak the tours accordingly. This is why we recently started to create a package tour that leaves from Jerusalem and does part of the north and ends in Nazareth, where participants can spend the night in Nazareth and then go on tours of the north that leave from Nazareth. They also can continue to the Golan and stay at a new hostel in Odem, which opened after one of our workshops, and do nature tours of the Golan from there.”
An average of 1,000 people a month take a tour with Abraham Tours and a variety of international lists include the Abraham Hostel Jerusalem in the top 10 hostels. Mor attributes the success to both the synergy between the hostel and the tours and “our focus on creating atmosphere and emphasizing small details that we as travelers want.”
Abraham Hostel Jerusalem
Tel. (02) 650-2200
67 Hanevi’im Street, Jerusalem 94702
Acre Youth Hostel
Tel.: (02) 594-5711
2 Weizman Street, Acre
Fauzi Azar Inn
Tel.: (04) 602-0469
Old City of Nazareth
Jerusalem Hostel and Guest House
Tel.: (02) 623-6102
44 Jaffa Road, Jerusalem 94222
Masada Youth Hostel
Tel.: (02) 594-5623
Old Jaffa Hostel and Guest House
Tel.: (03) 682-2370
13 Amiad Street, Jaffa-Tel Aviv 68139