It’s all about atmosphere, maintains Gal Mor, the co-owner and manager of one of the trendiest hubs for young international travelers in Jerusalem these days.
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“If you look around, you’ll see that our rooms are clean and functional, but that’s about it,” he notes, as he guides a visitor through the barely-two-year-old Abraham Hostel in Davidka Square. “The type of guests we get, what they’re looking for is not fancy rooms but a place where they can meet and interact with fellow travelers.”
Mor should know: His 80-room lodging facility was just named one of the top 10 large hostels in the world by Hostelworld.com, a huge international hostel-booking website, which determines its rankings on the basis of hundreds of thousands of guest reviews worldwide. The Jerusalem-based hostel placed No. 8 in the “Best Large Hostels” award category, which includes hostels with 101-250 beds. Mor’s partner, Maoz Inon, was presented with the prestigious award at a ceremony held in Dublin last week.
Most of the nearly 400 reviews of the downtown Jerusalem hostel on the popular TripAdvisor travel website are absolutely gushing. As one reviewer noted in a recent post titled “Great Value and Great Atmosphere”: “I found it one of the friendliest places where I have been in Israel, and believe me, that's not very common.”
Another reviewer, in a post titled “Thank You, Abraham Hostel!!!” had this to say: “This is the best of the best places in Jerusalem and maybe in the world.”
The few complaints posted by guests pertained mainly to the relatively long wait at the check-in counter and occasional noise from the street below.
A long-overlooked market
Mor and Inon, both in their mid-30s, might be considered trailblazers for tapping into a market long overlooked in this country – accommodations for independent, budget-minded travelers. Years ago, a network of such hostels did exist, set up mainly to serve European backpackers seeking no-frills accommodations, many of them spending part of their time volunteering on kibbutzim when they were still widespread travel destinations. But the two intifadas put an end to much of that low-end tourism, and all but a few of these hostels – the exceptions being in the Old City of Jerusalem – closed shop.
Mor and Inon, both of whom have spent considerable time abroad backpacking, hooked up about five years ago. By that time, Inon had already gotten his feet wet in the tourism business, having purchased a 200-year-old mansion in Nazareth, which he turned it into the Fauzi Azar Inn, a guesthouse with both private and dormitory-style rooms that has drawn rave reviews from travel critics. Mor was meanwhile running a walking tours company in Jerusalem. They were both convinced that Israel’s capital, with all its tourist attractions, was in dire need of some sort of infrastructure to accommodate travelers coming on their own.
“This place has so much to offer – great weather, short distances between places, lots of English speakers, lots of cultural and historical sites, great food, but it’s not very accessible to those who don’t come on the organized tours like Taglit or on pilgrimages,” says Inon.
They set their sights on a building on Hanevi'im Street that had once housed municipal offices and later served as a hostel for young Israeli school groups but that had been deserted for quite a few years. About three years ago, they purchased it and began renovations, and six months ago, recruited a third partner, Yaron Burgin, who today also chairs ILH-Israel Hostels, an umbrella organization for industry people.
The concept driving the Abraham Hostel (named after “Abraham, the first backpacker,” as their brochure states) is that independent travelers, many of them on their own, need more than just clean sheets, breakfast, and a place to dump their backpacks after an intense day on the road. They need a place to relax and mingle with other travelers, basic information and tips, and once in a while, some fun activities, like organized pub-crawls, midnight bike tours and sing-along nights.
The building, not overly impressive from the outside, takes on a more promising feel inside the lobby, which like most of the rooms, is done up in bright shades of orange and turquoise, giving the place a young, hip feel. Comfortable couches, chairs and bright-colored pillows are scattered around, while straight ahead, right near the check-in desk, is a travel information center, where guests can book tours, not only to destinations in Israel but also other places in the region, including Jordan, Egypt and the West Bank (“The Best of the West Bank” being one of the more popular tours).
A blackboard behind the main desk lists some of the week’s upcoming activities, among them a lesson in introductory Hebrew and one in introductory Arabic. “We see it as our job to help empower travelers, and having some basic language skills definitely does that,” explains Gal.
One flight up, just beyond a quiet little Internet gallery, lies the lounge and bar, furnished with a pool table, large tables for big groups, smaller tables for more intimate gatherings, swings hanging from the ceiling, and a fully-equipped kitchen. Up on the higher floors are the sleeping areas, including dormitory rooms with 10 beds in each (from NIS 80 to NIS 100 per night) and private rooms sleeping anywhere from two to six guests (from NIS 270 to NIS 360 per night).
Rubbing shoulders with other travelers
It’s late in the evening on a wintery February day, not exactly the peak season for tourism, but according to Burgin’s latest count, thanks to some last-minute walk-ins, the Abraham Hostel is at now at 90 percent occupancy. There are no Israeli guests sleeping in the hostel, but as word has spread in town about its popularity among the international crowd, many locals nostalgic for their own traveling days have been flocking to its lounge and bar to rub shoulders with other travelers, and the sounds of Hebrew can also be heard around.
Most of the guests, says Inon, are in the 20- to 35-year-old age category, with Americans and Germans accounting for the largest share. But a survey of the lounge on this particular evening reveals a somewhat more eclectic group, with quite a few Asian and Indian faces also in the crowd.
On one end of the room, about a dozen Americans are seated around a table eating their dinner and chattering loudly before they break into song. Seated at the bar are two Brazilian journalists, both in their mid-30s, who’ve made a two-day detour into Jerusalem from what was supposed to be a trip through “Arab Spring” countries. “We wanted to go to Libya, but that didn’t work out,” explains Dubes Sonego, who hails from Sao Paolo.
Sitting alone at a table with his beer and a laptop, 63-year-old John Brownawell, a night auditor from Harrisburg, Pa., says he’s been saving up money for years to make this trip to Israel, his first outside the United States. Not far away, in a darker, more intimate corner of the room, two middle-aged couples are sharing a bottle of wine, and back near the kitchen area, 23-year-old Dina Singer, a Birthright alumna, is chatting with one of the hostel volunteers, who she’s discovered is also a graduate of the program. Singer, who hails from Seattle, is upset to learn that she’ll be missing the weekly NIS 35 Shabbat dinner and service that’s become quite a hit among the hostel’s mostly non-Jewish guests. She’ll be off on her way to Spain by then, she explains.
Meanwhile, the three partners have already set their sights on the White City. “We’re now looking for a building there, and our plan is to open a hostel in Tel Aviv sometime in 2014,” reports Inon. They may be facing some competition, though, as Florentine Backpackers Hostel placed No. 9 in the latest Hostelworld.com’s awards for “Best Small Hostel.”
And what about a third intifada and all that could mean for investments of this sort? “That’s always something that’s in the back of our minds,” acknowledges Mor.