Something's different in Tel Aviv this summer, and it's not just the comfortable temperatures and lower humidity we've been experiencing. An increasing number of tourists to the city in recent months have decided not to opt for the city's limited - and expensive - range of hotel rooms, preferring instead to experience Tel Aviv through sleeping in the beds of the locals. But don't worry, it's much less risque than it sounds.
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Tel Aviv is a highly popular tourist destination, but has for many years suffered from a dearth of hotel rooms, whose prices have increased accordingly. One night in a standard hotel room in the city center can be just as expensive as an identical room in a midtown Manhattan hotel. Airbnb, the online apartment rental company that connects owners of more than 300,000 rental units throughout the world via its website, grasped the White City's potential and decided to make it a strategic target.
The company, which rents out igloos in Greenland, an airplane-shaped apartment in Holland and enormous tents in Denmark, decided to gamble on the Bauhaus apartments in Tel Aviv. In recent months it has invested a great deal in promoting its services here, including visits of some senior company executives to the city and customer events. It seems the efforts are paying off.
Eugen Miropolski, the regional director of Airbnb for Central and Eastern Europe and Israel, used to visit Tel Aviv regularly before starting to work for the company, mostly in order to visit his relatives. Now he also has a professional excuse to come calling. "Israelis are very open people and they love to host, even if they don't know their guests. It's really important to give your guests a warm feeling and to make sure they feel at home. It's also very clear that Israelis want to give Israel a good name. It's not rare to see hosts who help guests find good restaurants or make special maps for them."
What made Airbnb decide to invest major resources into a relatively small market?
"Israel is not such a small market for us," Miropolski corrects me. "It may be a small country, but it's a very developed market. Israelis are early adopters and Tel Aviv is one of our top 20 cities on the website, if we compare the number of new apartments and the time we are offering our services here."
According to Miropolski, Tel Aviv offers apartments that are more expensive than properties in Barcelona, Berlin, Milan and Rome, but somewhat less expensive than rentals in Paris, London and Moscow. A global trend that he also sees in Tel Aviv is that of economical sharing: "People want to give access to their resources. It affects every part of life. People want to share more goods with their neighbors."
Two months ago, Sasha G., from Great Britain (who asked that her full name not be published), arrived in Israel with her husband and two children for a family bat mitzvah. It was the family's first visit to Israel after a long hiatus, and this time it was clear to G. that they weren't going to be staying in a hotel because it was too expensive and they wanted the children to have their own room. About six months before their arrival, G., on a friend's recommendation, secured an apartment in central Tel Aviv through the Airbnb website.
"We found a really nice apartment close to the beach and near where our friends live,” she says. “The location is very good, near the port, just off Hayarkon Street. We didn't have a lot to spend, so we didn't look for something fancy, but it's a nice place, kind of what you would expect to find in Israel."
She paid £800 for 11 nights and says that, for that price, she could never have found a hotel in Tel Aviv, especially since it was important to her that the children have their own bedroom. "It gives you more options," she continues. "We are now having lunch here; you don't need to eat out all the time. The communication with the owner is also very good and we're having a great time in Tel Aviv, seeing friends, going to the beach. We're also more flexible staying in an apartment. The boys wake up around 7 A.M., and they can read and play in the living room while we can have slower starts, and in the evening they can go to sleep earlier. We definitely feel at home."
Some tourists coming to Tel Aviv look for luxury apartments meeting the same high standards as five-star hotels. Pairs of Prada and Louis Vuitton shoes are lined up at the entrance to Anton Pilz's deluxe rental, located on the top floor of a building in the heart of the Yemenite Quarter, a small, family-oriented neighborhood of low-rises near the beach, where the odor of Middle Eastern cooking scents the air.
The apartment he rents out year-round through Airbnb is currently occupied by a family of Russian tourists - a young couple and their daughter, whose colorful toys are scattered around the bright kitchen. Pilz is everything you wouldn't expect of a landlord: a smiling, blond 24-year-old who still works as a waiter at a cafe in the center of Tel Aviv and lives in a rental apartment with two flatmates. His family has been in the real estate business for many years and owns many properties around the city. In fact, visitors to Dizengoff Center, the city's main mall, can find photographs of his grandfather and great grandfather, who built the shopping center, hanging on the wall of one of its corridors.
Pilz's luxurious apartment consists of two floors; the upper one is surrounded by a large roof deck. It has two bedrooms, a living room, a den connected to the kitchen, three bathrooms, a parking space and an elevator. In addition, guests can enjoy the central air conditioning system, two large LED TV screens, wooden floors, a washer and dryer combo, a dishwasher, free high speed Internet access, and even a 100-title DVD library selected by Anton. All this for $200 per night, far less than the cost of most hotel rooms in the city.
Anton enjoys playing host and has perfected his marketing spiel: "The area is full of small boutique restaurants that still have the feel of working mens’ eateries," he says. "You can get the best ful in the city," referring to fava beans, a staple in Mediterranean cooking and often eaten at breakfast in some Arab countries. "We're a two-minute walk from Shuk Hacarmel [Tel Aviv's colorful open air market] and a five-minute walk from the beach. We've had guests who came with no intention of doing any cooking but found themselves hosting frequent dinner parties for friends and relatives using produce they'd bought at the market."
He says the occupancy rate - 70 percent - is higher than he expected. "It's going great," he smiles, "and the worst guests I've had are like the best customers I wait on at the cafe. If I have the time and the energy, I do something nice for them as soon as they arrive: buy some hummus, put fresh flowers on the tables, or buy a SIM card with unlimited calling for their cellphone. These are relatively small expenses." He feels it's important to be available for the guests, but also says he's had visitors calling him at 7 A.M. for help in figuring out how to operate the DVD player.