Israel is investing in expanding the network of high-quality hostels that offer an affordable alternative to traveling families and groups.
By Avigayil Kadesh
Hostels have a reputation as cheap places for traveling students to hang their backpacks and get a night’s rest. Started by a German teacher in 1909, the original hostels actually were schools that doubled as very basic guest houses for young travelers during vacation times.
In Israel, however, a network of about two dozen youth hostels operate at a higher scale — the world’s first to adopt international quality management standards, making them equivalent to two- or three-star hotels.
Run by the non-profit Israel Youth Hostel Association (IYHA), these strategically sited facilities are the favored choice for nearly one million overnight stays per year, mostly by groups visiting Israel on educational tours.
Now, an infusion of funds will position the hostels as an attractive alternative for general tourists as part of the Tourism Ministry’s overall plan to accommodate as many as five million annual visitors by 2015.
Major upgrades to include handicap access
Nine Israeli hostels are being upgraded and expanded as the Tourism Ministry invests NIS 29 million ($6.6 million) in a NIS 144.5 million ($33 million) cooperative project of the IYHA, the Education Ministry and the Jewish Agency.
Existing hostels at Masada, Beit She’an, Haifa, Mitzpe Ramon, Safed, Poriya and Tel-Hai will be renovated and enlarged. Additional youth hostels in the northern cities of Poriya and Acre will open to the public this summer, and a second one in Haifa in another couple of years. The hostels in Ein Gedi (near the Dead Sea) and in Tel-Hai (Upper Galilee) will be outfitted with 18 rooms designed for people with vision, hearing and motor disabilities.
“Our new hostel in old Acre will be amazing,” promises IYHA deputy director general Ofer Shapira. Acre, a mixed Arab and Jewish city on the Mediterranean coast, is a UNESCO preservation site due to its rich store of archeological antiquities.
Shapira has stayed in every IYHA hostel over nearly 20 years with the organization – most recently, he and his family spent Passover in the Masada hostel – and says each one is unique with several commonalities.
Geared for groups, whether families or tours, Israeli hostels foster a more informal atmosphere than hotels with an emphasis on public spaces such as basketball courts, classrooms, movie rooms and meeting rooms. Guest rooms, which sometimes include bunk beds, are equipped with cable TV, mini refrigerators and air conditioning. All IYHA hostels serve only kosher food (“because we live in Israel and it’s important,” says Shapira).
Every hostel has en suite bath facilities, with sinks, toilets and showers situated separately so as to cut down on waiting time for those sharing the room. This usually comes as a pleasant surprise to European travelers accustomed to communal washrooms in youth hostels.
Shapira says most foreign guests learn about Israel’s hostels through the website of the International Youth Hostel Federation, an organization of about 90 national youth hostel associations in more than 80 countries.
“On the one hand, this is very helpful because it reaches thousands of clients who know the ‘brand,’ but since the level of Israeli hostels is higher than what they have experienced in other countries, some people are afraid to come,” he says. “We try to get the word out by working with travel agents and special promotions.”
Typically, leaders of tour groups that stay in Israeli hostels, such as Taglit-Birthright, return later on holiday with their own families, says Shapira.
“We’re spread out in good, attractive locations where we think we can give tourism a boost,” he says. “Prices are mid-range, and we are careful not to raise our rates during the high season as much as hotels do.”
Guests may make reservations at any of the Israeli hostels using one toll-free phone number. The price includes breakfast, and additional meals may be ordered in advance.
The IYHA predates the State of Israel. The organization was founded in 1937 by the Youth Department of the National Committee to provide affordable accommodations and tours promoting knowledge of the country through pluralistic seminars on social, educational and environmental topics. Today, each hostel has classrooms equipped with audiovisual gear and educational materials.
The very first hostel, at Kfar Witkin near Netanya, was built on the authorization of the ruling British Mandate. It no longer exists, but others were established countrywide, from Eilat at the southern tip up to Tel-Hai way up north, in large cities, in the countryside and near main tourist sites.
In 1998, the first hostel opened in a non-Jewish village, the Druze town of Peki’in. Last year, says Shapira, some 30,000 people stayed there and many took part in educational seminars offered by the IYHA about coexistence and minorities.
The 15-member IYHA volunteer board of directors decides where to invest in new hostels and upgrades. The directors, many of whom are retired educators, have historically shown a lot of vision in their choices. For example, the hostels in Ein Gedi and Eilat, now both popular tourist sites, were among the first places to stay in those southern areas.
Shapira points out that as a non-profit organization, the IYHA has often opted to place guest houses in areas that are not surefire moneymakers but that have educational significance. This consideration is balanced against the ease of reaching the location.
“Years ago, transportation was a main consideration for locating new hostels,” says Shapira. “Now, most tourists rent cars or come on tour buses, but all our hostels can still be accessed by public transportation.”
On average, three-quarters of the guests are Israeli citizens, though the number of those from abroad is a little higher in hot spots like Ein Gedi, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
With its well-organized national resources, Shapira says it is “only natural” that the IYHA stepped in to house Ethiopian immigrants in the early 1990s and evacuate tens of thousands of visiting groups and Israeli youngsters from the north during the second Lebanon war in 2006.
“We housed them sometimes for one day and sometimes for three or four days, sending a bus with guides for them, under fire,” says Shapira. One night during that conflict, a man called at 3am from the United States offering to finance such an evacuation, giving Shapira his credit card number to pay for taking 120 children to a safer location and provide activities for them as well.
The greening of Israeli hostels
The IYHA is considered one of the most advanced youth hostel associations in the world and is a key partner in defining standards, determining conference themes and compiling educational materials for members of the international federation.
Every year, two or three delegations of hostel managers and board members from other countries come to Israel to learn about the IYHA’s standards and practices. The most recent groups, earlier this year, were from Slovenia and Germany, says Shapira.
“They found we are very advanced in sustainability and energy savings, which is internationally of interest,” he says. “Sustainability is not just about recycling anymore. We are pioneers in Israel in installing heating systems that save up to 70 percent more electricity, and we use air conditioning systems with the highest level of energy efficiency.”
The IYHA hostels also have switched to less toxic cleaning materials, and its hostel at Masada has a “gray water” system where water from rooms is filtered and then reused for landscape irrigation. “It’s very expensive, but this issue is important to us,” says Shapira.
Tour groups and families
“We are the main operators for the March of the Living tour groups in Israel,” says Shapira. Each spring, as many as 4,000 participants learn about Israel through programs in IYHA hostels, which house them and also house most Birthright groups from North America. Recently, the IYHA hosted Ministry of Education certification seminars for 5,000 Israeli summer camp counselors.
Shapira says the hostels provide “a fantastic atmosphere” for families as well. “You see the kids all playing together on the grounds, while the adults sit and talk without having to worry about the safety of their children.”
Despite a growing emphasis on general tourists, Shapira says the strength of the hostel network is in educational tourism. “Every hostel offers something unique to its location. For example, the Rabin hostel in Jerusalem has many classrooms and an amphitheater, and it is situated beside the Knesset, the High Court and the Israel Museum so that guests can walk to these places as part of their seminars and tours.”
Altogether, Israel’s hostels employ a few hundred people from managers to kitchen workers, and facilitate many additional jobs for “second line” workers in the food and laundry service industries.
The year 2011 is going to be a busy one for the IYHA. May 23 is the official opening of the Poriya hostel, while Acre will hold its grand opening ceremony on June 20. Each will be available for tourist bookings this summer.
A sampler of Israeli youth hostels
Tel-Hai: Sits on a hill facing the Golan Heights, Mount Hermon and the Upper Galilee. It was 63 rooms, two lecture halls, five classrooms, a dining room with seating for 300, basketball/soccer/volleyball courts, amphitheatre and synagogue.
Beit She’an: Has its own private pool, overlooking the Beit She’an valley and the Gilboa mountains. It has 62 rooms, seven lecture halls, basketball court, synagogue, snack bar and dining room seating 250.
Mitzpeh Ramon: Located at the northern edge of the Ramon Crater, it has 47 rooms, multi-functional hall with 150 seats, two classrooms, disco club, event hall and two dining rooms seating a total of 200. It also has facilities for disabled guests.
Masada: Right at the foot of the historic mountain overlooking the Dead Sea, it has a private swimming pool, 88 rooms, a lecture hall, synagogue, basketball court, four classrooms each seating 70 people and a dining room that seats 300. It has handicap access and accommodations.
Yitzhak Rabin, Jerusalem: Near the national government complex and the Israel Museum, it has 77 rooms, 11 classrooms, an amphitheatre with 250 seats, a synagogue, cafeteria, and rooms equipped for the handicapped. Guests receive a discount to use the sports center on the nearby Hebrew University campus, including a swimming pool, gym and tennis courts.
Shlomi: Near Nahariya on the northern Mediterranean coast, it has 100 rooms, one classroom, basketball/soccer court, activity rooms, a synagogue and a dining room seating 260.
Karei Deshe: On the banks of the Sea of Galilee, built around an inner courtyard surrounded with palm trees and lawns. It has 65 rooms, lecture and study rooms, basketball court, beach area, conference room, snack bar and a dining room that seats 250.