Israel’s Hotels Resist the Star-rating System

The industry says the criteria are no longer relevant when guests can rely on websites like TripAdvisor

The Crowne Plaza Eilat hotel, August 4, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

It’s been five years since the Tourism Ministry decided the time had come to bring back the system of assigning star ratings to the country’s hotels. The hotels themselves, however, have shown very little interest.

Tourism Ministry figures show that among 450 hotels in Israel, only 53 have been rated by the ministry while 47 were awarded a rating in the past but let it expire after the three-year period for which the stars were assigned.

The ministry spent 2.7 million shekels ($760,000) developing the voluntary program, but even the chains that took part in the original plan now say it has little impact on tourists’ decisions.

“The undertaking didn’t succeed, but no one wants to replace it either, so the Tourism Ministry is keeping it going,” said Nahum Kara, director of marketing and sales at the Isrotel hotel chain.

Despite Kara’s criticism, Isrotel has agreed to ratings for all its hotels and has no plans to drop them. “There’s no reason to stop getting the ratings because it doesn’t cost us any money,” he said. “On the other hand, we’ve gotten nothing out of the ratings.”

At a time when guests can offer their opinions about a hotel on sites like TripAdvisor, Booking.com and Expedia, the Tourism Ministry’s official rating system is increasingly irrelevant, many people in the hotel industry say.

“I don’t understand why the Tourism Ministry is investing so many resources to restore the star system. Somebody choosing a hotel won’t look at it. He checks if the location of the hotel is good, if guests who were there are giving amazing grades for the service, and if the price is right. Then he’ll make a reservation,” said Avi Dor, CEO of Prima Hotels.

“Customers believe in ratings determined by hundreds of real customer reactions, not in some archaic rating system from yesteryear. I don’t think anyone calls up and asks how many stars a hotel has. Once people relied on ratings because there was no other way, but today it’s different.”

Prima is linked to a network that aggregates guest reactions posted on 148 websites around the world and in different languages. “That gives us our real grade …. It’s a real-time and accurate rating. If I were the Tourism Ministry, I would use that,” Dor said.

Israel dropped the star system in 1992, but in 2011 a government committee looking into ways to reduce the cost of a vacation in Israel recommended bringing it back. Stas Misezhnikov was tourism minister at the time, and his successor Yariv Levin, unusually for an Israeli cabinet minister, didn’t reject the idea. Israel adopted the European Hotelstars program.

Today the Tourism Ministry looks at things differently than the hotel industry. Indeed, it’s threatening to make the ratings system mandatory.

“For more than a year we’ve recognized that this is what has to happen, but an election was approaching and we couldn’t undertake something like this. We’re not going to give up,” said Amir Halevi, the Tourism Ministry’s director general.

“Over time we’ve become convinced that there’s no better system than it. A system that employs star ratings together with websites like TripAdvisor is the best possible combination. I don’t see any better system, especially because we know of the problems TripAdvisor has,” Halevi added, referring to fake reviews.

Halevi said the star ratings are part of a campaign to raise the standards at Israeli hotels.

“In a country that’s so expensive, we have to give more value for the customer’s money, and the rating is an important tool. There are hotels that want to rate themselves and there are those that want as few ratings as possible,” Halevi said.

“These are hotels with high occupancy rates and are very profitable. They want to avoid anything that will give them extra headaches and experts who offer them advice.”

Amir Hayek, president of the Israel Hotels Association, said he didn’t think the ministry was as enthusiastic about the rating system as it says in public.

“Maybe they’re continuing with it because they’re worried about criticism over how much they spent on it. Maybe they believe that’s just the way it has to be. But I think they need to end it,” Hayek said. “No one comes to a hotel tabula rasa.”

In any case, the goal of using the rating system to lower hotel rates hasn’t succeeded, and Israel remains an expensive place to visit compared to similar locations around the world.

Isrotel’s Kara makes no apologies for that.

“Room rates are based on supply and demand, and that’s not connected to any rating,” he said. “If they thought that a rating system would cause prices to come down, that was a faulty assumption in my view.”

The Tourism Ministry rating system examines 270 criteria such as whether guests are provided with bathrobes, if the room is bigger than 22 square meters (72 square feet) and if there is parking.

Criteria like these caused Prima to agree to ratings on only some of its properties. “We examined how the ratings serve us, and on that basis we decided which hotels to get rated and which not,” Dor said.

“For example, we left our boutique and concept hotels out of it because their room sizes would have given them a three-star rating even though the hotels are to a much higher standard. Why should be lower ourselves?” Dor said, adding that ratings on boutique hotels could hurt these assets.

He believes that many of the criteria, such as the size of public areas, swimming pools and parking, are no longer relevant. Today many hotels cooperate with nearby restaurants or health clubs to offer guests services, he said.