What do Mitzpe Ramon — a sleepy town in the Negev — and the Arab city of Nazareth, have in common? They are both popular backpacker destinations on an evolving hostel circuit.
Many head first to Jerusalem, making a bee-line for Abraham Hostel, opened by five Israeli backpackers in 2010 who named it after the “first backpacker in the Middle East”. That hosts about 25,000 a year, but founder Maoz Inon, insists “there is potential for ten times that”.
The hostel, in the city centre, minutes from the Machane Yehuda Market, is Israel’s largest private hostel with more than 250 beds in both private and dormitory style rooms. It’s not a dingy, dirty youth hostel from days-gone-by, but a bright, friendly, and funky place with clean, basic rooms, and large communal areas. And only two years after opening, it has been named one of Hostel World’s top ten.
Mitzpe Ramon, on the cliffs of the Ramon Crater, has also recently acquired its own hostel — The Green Backpackers. This was founded by two tour guides who dreamt of transforming the town into a hub for travellers. The 3,000 person desert town may seem off the beaten track, but looks urban next to nearby Negev Camel Ranch. This is a working camel farm next to the ancient Nabatean city of Mamshit.
An even more rural hostel is the Shkedi’s Camp lodge in Neot Hakikar village, just south of the Dead Sea. Yet accommodation is in air-conditioned wood cabins. Interestingly, traditional tourist-cities such as Tiberias are being bypassed in favour of Nazareth — a 100 per cent Arab town. The hostel Fauzi Azar Inn, housed in an Ottoman Mansion, was founded in 2005. It has attracted tourists from around the world and won global awards for its impact on developing the local economy.
Near Haifa, the Galilee Bedouin camp lodge, has transformed a 1940s train carriage into a hostel.
Further north, near Safed is Kibbutz Inbar — Israel’s smallest kibbutz. Six families live there and travellers stay in a dormitory-style guest house. Those looking to explore get a package of information to help them on their way. Across the Sea of Galilee, in the Golan Heights, there is the Mongolian Tent Village — Ghengis Khan. The location is a good base to explore the region.
Several hostels have also opened in Tel Aviv. These are mostly around Hayarkon (near the beach) and Jaffa, where youth culture thrives.
So why the sudden upturn in independent travel? Over the past few years Israel has been better marketed as a tourist destination resulting in a myriad of accolades. There has also been UNESCO recognition and the emergence of a national hiking trail.
And transport has improved with the first ever hop-on-hop-off tour bus cross northern Israel. The Abraham Bus runs in a daily loop from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, along the Mediterranean Coast, passing the major sites of the Galilee and returning to Jerusalem through the Jordan Valley and Judean Desert.
Significantly, the Open Skies agreement — aimed at bringing down airfares and encourage direct flights from Europe — comes into full force next year. Guide book publishers have taken note and renewed their long outdated titles on Israel.
All this bodes well and demand for hostel-style accommodation has become greater than almost any other comparably-sized city in the world. In fact, several more hostels are in the pipeline, including the first ever to planned in Beer Sheva next year.
NEED TO KNOW
FLY: El Al are offering October fares to Tel Aviv from £359 Luton and £390 Heathrow
STAY: Abraham Hostel from NIS 79 a night, www.abrahamhostels.com
Fauzi Azar Inn from NIS 90 a night www.fauziazarinn.com
Green Backpackers from NIS 75 a night
Negev Camel Ranch from NIS 100 a night www.cameland.co.il