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Downtown Jerusalem hostel seeks out broader Middle East.

The award-winning Abraham Hostel offers a free night to travelers arriving from Syria or Lebanon. Tracey from Taiwan and Adrianne from the Netherlands sat on a couch in the colorful lobby of the Abraham Hostel in downtown Jerusalem, waiting for a tour titled "Meet the Orthodox Jews" to begin.

Tracey said she saw Orthodox Jews for the first time in Antwerp last year, and all she knew about them was that they sold diamonds and were rich. "They won't talk to us, so we need another way to know more about their culture," she said. "Now I know many of them live here. So interesting!"

If Tracey and Adrianne stay at the hostel an extra day, they will be able to choose between sunrise at Masada, a tour of Bethlehem, Shabbat dinner at the hostel, or Friday night services at a nearby synagogue. In fact, the schedule--written in chalk on a blackboard behind the reception desk--allows them to do all four activities.

When Yaron Burgin opened Abraham Hostel with his partners three years ago, he did so as a seasoned backpacker. After years traveling the world, he found himself in 2007 on an aimless road trip in Israel where he discovered that his own country did little to draw foreign independent travelers, or FITs, one of the fastest-growing segments of international tourism.

"I found that we need to speak to tourists in the language they understand from other places," Burgin told The Times of Israel. "A German who comes here is used to hostels that offer certain services and facilities. He already stayed at hostels in Paris, Istanbul and Mexico City and expects the same amenities when he comes to Jerusalem."

Burgin named his hostel after biblical Abraham, whom he calls "the first backpacker in the Middle East."

"Abraham walked from Iraq to Syria to Jordan to the Land of Israel with a backpack. He was the first backpacker and the first host," he said. "We try to follow in his footsteps by imitating Abraham's amazing hospitality here in modern Israel."

Burgin's vision of a backpackers' hub in downtown Jerusalem succeeded beyond all expectations. With 260 beds in 75 rooms, Abraham is the largest privately owned hostel in the country. Located in a building that once housed a ritual bath, a wedding hall and the treasury of Jerusalem's municipality, the hostel won TripAdvisor.com's traveler award two years in a row, was ranked among the 10 best large hostels in the world by Hostelworld.com, and received the "Best atmosphere award" from Hostelbookers.com.

The owners of Abraham Hostel view their baby as the first in a chain that will soon expand to Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea, and later to Amman and Cairo. The hostel's tourism company already runs tours to the West Bank, Jordan and Egypt. A free map of Jerusalem handed out at the front desk recommends partner hostels in Jenin, Nablus, Amman and Cairo.

Supporting the neighbors is natural, Burgin said. Regional tourism is a rapidly growing trend and Abraham Hostel wants to be on its cutting edge. "As part of our bid to encourage regional tourism, whoever shows up with a stamp on their passport proving they just came from Syria or Lebanon gets a free night in our dorms," Burgin said. "We simply want to encourage people to do cross-region tours."

Hostels on the other side of the border would have a hard time reciprocating. Lebanon and Syria do not allow tourists with an Israeli stamp on their passport to enter the country.

Nevertheless, on April 1, one of Burgin's partners launched a trial balloon on the hostel's Facebook page, which boasts 6,000 fans. "Next year, we're opening a new branch in Beirut," he proclaimed. "People didn't realize this was an April Fools' Day joke," Burgin said. "The enthusiastic reactions were incredible! It just goes to show you how thirsty people are for this type of cooperation."

Adrian Yuen, a 28-year-old accountant from Melbourne, Australia, came to Abraham Hostel as part of a round-the-world trip that took him to Egypt, Jordan, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. He said he chose to stay at the hostel over the free alternative of couch surfing--which he had tried in the past--because hostels allowed him to meet many single travelers like himself. Some countries, like Oman, don't even have hostels, he noted. Yuen said that while Israel is certainly more modern than Egypt and Jordan, it gives off a similar vibe. "There's not one thing that stands out in my mind making Israel that unique," he said.

Adrianne, a health journalist from Rotterdam, said she came to Israel as "a country with a large Muslim population," to experience a culture markedly different from her own. With the rest of the region "kind of off-limits" due to the Arab Spring, and having already visited Jordan and Morocco in the past, Adrianne found Israel to be a natural destination. "Israel is a very complex country," she said. "There are lots of different people and it's difficult to understand how they all live together. There are so many things to see: nature, culture, religious sites."

Earlier in the week, Adrianne went on a trip to Hebron organized by Abraham Hostel and said it was "upsetting" to discover the reality of the city. The tour was balanced, she noted: The group visited both the Palestinian side of town and the small Jewish neighborhood, and listened to presentations from both sides. "It was very interesting. I think it was the best way to visit Hebron, because otherwise it wouldn't make any sense. It still doesn't, but at least you know how it developed to be this way and how the Palestinians and the settlers feel about it," she said.

That's exactly the kind of experience Burgin hoped to engender when creating Abraham Hostel. "Independent tourism is a tool for social change," he said. "We provide a meaningful travel experience where people come to realize that the reality here is complex, not black and white. We allow them to meet people, not politicians, which really leaves a mark."

By The Times of Israel
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Publication:Israel Faxx
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Nov 1, 2013
Words:1023
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