hostels - Emil Salman - 20012012
A traveler in Jerusalem on Thursday. Photo by Emil Salman
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Brett Taylor, a 23-year-old American backpacker, is currently one year into a three-year trip around the world. In order to stretch every cent, the self-described "hard traveler" sleeps outside or on public transportation; hostels for Taylor are a last resort. That is why, during the week he spent traveling in Israel, Taylor says he wanted nothing to do with the country's overpriced tourism industry.

The feeling appears to be mutual. Israel's tourism industry largely ignores travelers like Taylor in favor of larger and wealthier demographics, according to hotel owners and Tourism Ministry officials. And the strategy seems to be paying off. In 2011, 3.4 million people visited Israel, almost as many as the record set in 2010, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. About 72 percent stayed in hotels, compared to only seven percent who stayed in hostels.

Yet private hostel owners around the country insist that the tourism industry could benefit from better accommodating backpackers.

"Israel's Ministry of Tourism is making a mistake by not taking backpackers more seriously," said Maoz Inon, part-owner of two hostels in Israel and the co-founder of Israel Hostels, a coalition of 32 hostels around the country. "They... offer benefits that traditional tourists don't."

"Backpackers don't want to do the same things as everyone else," agreed Yaron Burgin, who partnered with Inon to start Israel Hostels and Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem. "Hostels give them the resources to plan their own trips and meet other travelers as they go."

Lisa O'Brien, 33, recently quit her recruiting job outside of London to travel for a year. For the last two months she has been volunteering at a hostel in Jerusalem, but she told Anglo File this week she soon plans to move to Ramallah to teach English. Living in a hostel has given her the chance to get her bearings, she said.

Unlike seasonal travelers, backpackers supply a steady stream of tourists, hostel owners report. Lee Balot, originally from Ramat Hasharon, opened The Green Backpackers hostel in Mitzpeh Ramon with her boyfriend last spring. Despite failing to find any government support, they now report 90 percent occupancy and are planning to expand from their 15-bed building.

"We hear hotel owners in the Negev complaining that they can't fill beds in the winter," she said. "But we're having to turn people away."

Catering to backpackers has other advantages, Balot adds. After Egyptian terrorists attacked a tour bus on its way to Eilat last August, tourism in the Negev plummeted, but The Green Backpackers remained full, she says.

Private hostel owners note that backpackers are also good for the Israeli economy as a whole. Compared to traditional tourists, backpackers travel more widely and spend more money in the community, they say.

The Tourism Ministry does not deny these benefits, but its main focus remains on big, proven markets, even in the off-season, says Tini Shani, the Tourism Ministry's deputy director of marketing administration. Shani says the Tourism Ministry's 17 branches spend about NIS 270 million a year on marketing, much of it directed toward affluent residents of North America, Russia and Germany.

"We are very glad for every person who is coming to Israel," Shani said. "But at the end of the day, we are counting money. According to our theories and research, backpackers are not the best source of income."

At the same time, the Tourism Ministry has tried to bring the cost of visiting Israel down by encouraging the development of more hotel rooms, says Eran Nitzan, the Tourism Ministry's senior deputy director for infrastructure, development and investment. Over the last two years it has given NIS 464 million in grants, encouraging a total of NIS 2.25 billion in investment in hotels, according to its records.

The numbers show that more than 90 percent of the grant and investment money has been funneled to four- and five-star hotels. And while the Tourism Ministry refers to the two- and three-star hotels it supports as hostels, many of these do not meet the typical backpacker's definition of a hostel, as they do not have amenities such as dormitories, kitchens and social areas.

The government-run Israel Youth Hostel Association does provide backpacker-style accommodations, and is well funded by the Tourism Ministry. Between 2011 and 2015, it is slated to receive NIS 114.5 million in investments, including NIS 29 million in government grants, according to the Tourism Ministry newsletter. This money will go toward building nine new hostels and renovating many others, it says.

In the absence of additional government assistance, Israel's private hostels have built their own backpacking infrastructure. Israel Hostels, founded in 2006, sets standards for its members and offers sleekly branded travel information and booking services in print and online.

Many of its members also have their own websites and help backpackers find local activities and connect with each other once they arrive. For instance, Abraham Hostel, which opened near Jerusalem's Zion Square in late 2010, is very active online and provides a staffed trip-planning center, complete with brochures, books and Internet access.

Such efforts appear to be paying off. In 2011, the percentage of people staying in hostels more than doubled and Israel Hostels bookings increased by 35 percent, according to Bureau of Statistics and Israel Hostel records.

Private hostel owners suggest that these results demonstrate the potential of the backpacking market.

But some backpackers still find it hard to imagine Israel becoming a major destination among their set. Joshua Siegelberg, a 28-year-old graphic designer and self-described secular Jew from Canada, came to Israel for a short vacation this month. Although he has visited Israel several times, he says most of his friends think of the country not as a tourist destination but as a war zone.

"You have to be a little weird to come to here," he said. "People who just want to bungee jump and drink beer will always go to New Zealand."