A brief conversation with Moria Shapira evoked a powerful hankering to take a vacation in the Shiloh region of the West Bank.
Shapira owns a bed-and-breakfast in Adei Ad, the settlement outpost in which she lives, called Shalvat Ha’emek. In the pictures, it looks terrific. “The B&B is gorgeous and is suitable for 10 guests,” she says ardently. “The view is fantastic, there’s a gigantic Jacuzzi, a coffee machine, a kitchen, swings, cradles, a barbecue and whatnot.”
Asked where we should visit in the vicinity, Shapira explains that ancient Shiloh is the biggest draw for tourists, with more than 100,000 visitors a year. Other attractions in the area, she says, include restaurants, springs, escape rooms and the agriculture experience. She doesn’t mention the obvious, which is that Shiloh is located in the heart of the West Bank, on a crest in the Binyamin hills, and that it’s surrounded by Palestinian villages scattered between Nablus and Ramallah. It’s also about 20 kilometers east of the West Bank settlement city of Ariel. But one might hope that anybody finding this B&B on Airbnb would figure that out. The price (for 10) is 450 shekels ($120) a night on weeknights and 550 shekels ($148) on weekends.
Airbnb’s announcement that it will be removing rental listings in West Bank settlements caught many people by surprise.
Some, such as Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, were taken aback by the company’s ingratitude. Levin spent four years flattering them at every opportunity, clarifying that he would not constrain their activity and praising them for enabling growth in the number of tourists sleeping in Israel, and look what he got, a kick in the teeth. But the biggest and probably most intriguing surprise is among the people astonished to discover that the settlements offer guesthouses, some of them spacious, grand and luxurious — just half an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv, and at a fraction of the price of accommodations in the city.
A swift search on Airbnb for Ariel generates dozens of results, all over the West Bank. The first step is to arrange the results according to B&Bs in Palestinian towns (there are plenty, for instance in Nablus, Ramallah and in villages too), and in the settlements. Airbnb does not make that distinction.
Shalvat Ha’emek in Shiloh has only been operating for a few months but Shapira says she’s already received some customers via Airbnb. Her main problem with being removed from the marketing platform, she emphasizes, is the principle of the matter, not the business.
“They are a global website, after all. So how can they tell me not to host tourists here?” she asks. “This discrimination is hurtful. They didn’t boycott hosts in Ramallah.”
Asked about damage to her business, Shapira answers that she doesn’t think it will be a major problem.
“Our business will go on exactly as it is now,” she says. “Perhaps there will be marginal damage, but that isn’t significant. Most of our customers arrive through the Binyamin tourism website/ or through Israeli B&B sites, and through brochures distributed mainly among the religious community. Our occupancy rate is excellent and we are confident that it will just grow.”
Asher Solomon, from the settlement of Dolev, west of Ramallah, operates two pretty wooden guest cabins called Sof Haderekh.
In the past two years he has fewer than 10 reservations orders through Airbnb, he says. A handful of people come from overseas, and Israelis find him through other means.
Solomon calls Airbnb’s decision and the responses that it drew “a tempest in a teacup” that won’t really affect occupancy in the cabins.
“We have been operating for five years and most of the guests come by word of mouth from friends or family, how pretty the place is,” Solomon says.
“We are also active on social media and publish in local papers of the religious and ultra-Orthodox communities.” The cabins cost 400 shekels (around $105) a night.
However, after stating that he isn’t worried about diminishing bookings, Solomon says Airbnb’s decision will have one clear effect: “We go abroad several times a year. To date we booked all our accommodation through Airbnb, but we won’t any more. They’re making me angry and I’ll look for their competitors and order through them. We know how to boycott too.”
Moshe Ronski, a tourism manager in Binyamin, estimates that the West Bank has about 200 active B&Bs, and that the Binyamin region alone has dozens of B&Bs and guesthouses. Their occupancy rate is fantastic, Ronski says. Even in November, they’re almost full on weekends.
“Most of our guests come from the religious community,” Ronski says, adding that their occupancy rate is much higher than similar places in northern Israel.
Airbnb isn’t the only way customers can get to accommodations in the settlements. Their deletion from the platform is irksome and hurtful, Ronski says, but it isn’t a body blow. The main ones arriving through the site are Christian evangelicals who want to visit religious sites, for instance in the vicinity of Shiloh.
Some of the Israeli customers arrive through direct marketing via the tourism association, but most come through word of mouth.
The main problem with Airbnb’s decision, the thing that bugs Ronski the most, is the submission to the boycott.
“Today it’s us. Tomorrow it could be tourism in all of Israel,” he says. “Heaps of hypocrisy are involved here. The very same company continues to advertise guest rooms in Ramallah and Nablus, and what is the difference between us and them?”