The lazy days of summer may have ended, but hot on its heels comes the never-ending Jewish holiday season – meaning that Israelis are back on their travels all over again. Bags packed? Plane tickets booked? Car rented? Airbnb booked for that end? Mother-in-law left to hand over keys to incoming Airbnb guests at this end?
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For those who have been living under a rock for the past few years – or locked in a Hilton hotel room – Airbnb is, for a growing number of people, as integral a part of travel planning as remembering to take the passports.
A San Francisco-based company launched in 2008 by three friends trying to make extra money by turning their living room into a Bed and Breakfast, Airbnb has now morphed into a massive global community of hosts and paying guests – offering everything from shared basements to tree houses, and yurts to castles.
Becoming a member of the Airbnb community is free and open to anyone. You don’t need to host in order to be hosted, or be hosted in order to host. The community is safeguarded, in part, by a system of recommendations and reviews, a response rating, a private messaging system – and a hefty home insurance policy.
To date, some seven million people have joined as members, gaining access to 1.5 million listings in 191 countries. The latest host country, Cuba, joined this summer.
Jeroen Merchiers is Airbnb’s general manager for North, East and Southern Europe, and also oversees the Israel market. He made his first-ever visit to the country last week, as part of the DLD innovation conference in Tel Aviv. “Israelis were early and enthusiastic adaptors of Airbnb,” he tells Haaretz, noting out that even without marketing or an official Airbnb company presence here until now, the whole concept of short-term house sharing and subletting has caught on rapidly. “Three years ago we had 900 listings in Israel,” he says. “Now there are over 13,000, and it’s growing every day.”
Last year, 128,000 guests from 124 countries used Airbnb when visiting Israel – a 45 percent increase on 2013. The United States, Germany, Britain, Russia and France – in that order – were the top five countries from which visitors came.
The most popular Israeli cities for Airbnb guests were Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Netanya and Bat Yam – an Airbnb staffer joking that the latter one was presumably because a fair few tourists thought it was closer to Tel Aviv than it actually is.
In a nod to the company’s success in Israel, Airbnb announced last week its partnership with the municipality’s “Tel Aviv Global” company for a city guide that will highlight the city’s attractions – helping Airbnb guests with maps and photos, lists of things to see and do, and tips from hosts.
“Israel as a destination clearly has a lot to offer,” says Merchiers, dismissing the chorus of apologies for the subpar weather and sandstorms that hit the country last week and made it hard for the country to show itself off at its best, or even to show itself much at all. “It’s a beach holiday, and a 24-hour party destination. It’s a religious destination. It has ecotourism the list goes on and on.”
Backing up his evaluation, Merchiers points out that the average length of an Airbnb stay in Israel is 5.9 days – significantly higher than the company’s average worldwide stay of 2-3 days.
Airbnb statistics show that the average nightly price of a listing in Israel was 445 shekels ($115), with a typical annual income for an Airbnb host of 9,470 shekels. Total host earnings in Israel last year were 124.5 million shekels. Nearly 80 percent of the listings here are people’s primary homes, with the rest being secondary homes or spaces bought as investments.
And Israel isn’t only an active host country – Israelis are also active Airbnb guests around the world. According to Airbnb statistics, Israel is one of those rare countries where there’s a close-to 50-50 ratio between those hosting and those seeking to be hosted. Typically, it’s one or the other. France, for example, has more inbound Airbnb tourists looking for accommodations, especially in Paris. Russia is the other way around, with many Russians looking for Airbnb housing on their foreign travels, but less open, especially in Moscow, to hosting.
The top five Airbnb destinations for Israelis last year were the United States, Italy, Germany, France and Britain.
Merchiers says he hadn’t fully realized how much name recognition Airbnb had among Israelis until he landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport last week and went through security. It was no short interview, he admits. “The security lady was asking me a lot of question. A lot,” he adds, describing what is, for many, a typical first experience here.
However, he continues, the security officer’s tone changed when she asked where he worked. “Airbnb? I love Airbnb!” she exclaimed.
“That was a first for me,” relates Merchiers. “Usually, no one at airports knows anything about the company.” The two bonded a little, and the discussion shifted from questions about possible terrorist connections to Airbnb’s pricing and locations. But did it help him get through security any quicker? “Not really,” he smiles. Welcome to Israel.