Chapter 4: Online Tourism Companies Doing Business in the Settlements
Around the world, tourists are increasingly using the internet to research destinations and book their vacations. Visitors to Israeli settlements in the OPT are no exception. In 2017, almost half of all foreign visitors to Israel said that they had received information about the country from the internet before arriving, compared to only 14% who said they had consulted a traditional travel agent. The world’s leading digital tourism companies – Airbnb, Booking.com, Expedia and TripAdvisor – all include listings for properties or attractions in settlements on their various websites. These sites allow tourism-related businesses in Israeli settlements to advertise their services to consumers around the world.
Airbnb is a privately-owned US-based company, estimated to be worth more than US$30 billion. Founded in 2008, Airbnb owns and operates the world’s largest online property rental platform. Its key service is to provide a platform for homeowners to advertise properties for rent and handle bookings and payments. Customers sign up as members of Airbnb either as hosts or as guests. For every booking, Airbnb charges both the host (3-5% of the rental value) and the guest (up to 20%). For customers outside the USA, Airbnb runs its business through subsidiaries in China (for Chinese hosts and guests), Japan (for Japanese hosts and guests) and Ireland (for hosts and guests from the rest of the world, including Israel and the OPT).
Airbnb says that its business model runs on trust. While it checks the identity of users, the company states that it has no control over and does not guarantee “the existence, quality, safety, suitability, or legality” of any listing, or the “truth and legality” of any listing description.
Airbnb claims that its site carries more than 5 million listings – of rooms, apartments and whole homes – in 191 countries and has handled more than 400 million bookings since it was founded. The company runs 55 “localized” websites, tailored for consumers in different languages and countries. Israel has been a rapidly growing market for Airbnb. The company says it now has more than 20,000 hosts in the country.
On 19 November 2018, Airbnb announced that it would remove approximately 200 listings in Israeli settlements in the “occupied West Bank”. It did so in the wake of successful campaigning by a coalition of human rights organizations. Airbnb explained its decision by saying that it had evaluated “whether the existence of listings is contributing to existing human suffering” and “whether the existence of listings in the occupied territory has a direct connection to the larger dispute in the region”. Airbnb said that, after consulting experts, it had concluded that: “we should remove listings in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank that are at the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians”. However, this commitment did not extend to listings in settlements in East Jerusalem, even though it too is occupied territory. The company did not explain why it had made this exception. Airbnb issued a new public statement on 18 December 2019, following a meeting between a company executive and Israel’s minister of tourism. Airbnb denied media reports that it had suspended its commitment to stop listing properties in settlements in the West Bank, stating that it had “communicated that we are developing the tools needed to implement our policy and that process includes continuing our dialogue with the Government of Israel and other stakeholders.
At the time of writing (14 January 2019), Airbnb had yet to implement its November 2018
announcement and was still listing properties across the OPT. Even after it does so, Airbnb will still have more individual listings in settlements than any other digital tourism company because of its remaining listings in East Jerusalem. Amnesty International researchers found that the company listed more than 100 properties there.
In its November 2018 announcement, the company said it had approximately 200 properties in settlements elsewhere in the West Bank, which it would delist. Amnesty International found that these were in 64 separate settlements.147 They included rentals overlooking the Dead Sea, as well as ones in towns close to Jerusalem, in small rural settlements and even in “settlement outposts” that are not only illegal under international law, but are also not authorized by the Israeli government.
Booking.com is the Netherlands-headquartered company that operates Booking.com, the
accommodation booking website. In 2017, the company claimed the site was the world’s biggest, with 673 million “room nights booked”. Booking.com is a wholly owned subsidiary of the US-listed company Booking Holdings Inc., which in April 2018 was valued at over US$100 billion.
Booking.com’s key service is as a platform for users to reserve accommodation, from which the company then earns a commission of up to 15%. It says that it lists more than 1.7 million accommodation providers in over 220 countries and territories worldwide. Booking.com initially only advertised hotels but has rapidly increased its listings in “homes, apartments and other non-traditional places to stay”.
Booking.com maintains localized versions of its site in over 40 languages. Its services are also carried by other major international digital tourism companies (see Annex I). These include other subsidiaries of Booking Holdings Inc., such as Singapore-based Agoda, which targets customers in South East Asia; separate companies, such as Ctrip, which says it is China’s largest online tourist agency; and London-headquartered Opodo Ltd, which focuses on European customers.
In September 2018, Amnesty International found that Booking.com listed 45 accommodation providers in settlements, up from two in 2010. These were in East Jerusalem as well as 20 other locations across the West Bank. Most properties are rental apartments and homes. But Booking.com also listed 11 hotels, six of which have more than 50 rooms. Therefore, Booking.com is likely to be responsible for more visitors to settlements than Airbnb and to make a greater contribution to settlement economies even though it lists fewer individual properties.
Booking.com: listings in settlements
Unlike the other companies featured in this report, Booking.com has a wholly owned Israeli subsidiary. This “support company”, with offices in Tel Aviv, has staff members who manage relations directly with accommodation providers in settlements. The company states that this involves “day-to-day pro-active communication”, which is sometimes in person. Booking.com staff members advise property hosts on how to promote their businesses and also verify that the information they provide is accurate.
The US-listed company Expedia is the owner and operator of the accommodation booking websites Expedia.com and Hotels.com, as well as a range of other digital tourism sites (see Annex I). Expedia makes money by charging a commission on each booking, but it does not disclose in its public documents how much this is.
Expedia.com and Hotels.com list the same properties on their platforms – 590,000 in 200 countries. They both have a global reach, targeting customers through their localized content websites. There are 33 localized versions of Expedia.com and 90 localized versions of Hotels.com, in 41 different languages. Expedia has over 100 offices in 38 countries.
Its two flagship websites both list properties in settlements in the OPT. In total, Expedia.com and Hotels.com list nine accommodation providers. Four are hotels with approximately 50 to 80 rooms. Two of these hotels are in East Jerusalem, four are hotels in settlements elsewhere in the OPT, one is a luxury campsite and two are apartments for rent.
Expedia does not have an office in Israel or the OPT, but it employs staff who manage its business there. For example, a vacancy advertisement for a Hebrew-speaking Lodging Partner Associate in Expedia’s Prague office explains that the post holder works with accommodation providers to boost their business and attract new customers. The company also employs account management staff who proactively seek new properties to list.
The US-based TripAdvisor claims to run the world’s most visited travel-related site, recording nearly 455 million average monthly unique visitors in 2017. The site provides information and reviews on attractions, restaurants and places to stay. It has 48 localized versions and 28 different language versions.
TripAdvisor is a more complicated website than those of the other companies featured in this report. Business owners post information about their tourist services, restaurant or property for free on the website so that travellers can rate them and share reviews. TripAdvisor then earns revenue by charging business owners who wish to buy advertising or promote their business on the site in other ways.
Increasingly, TripAdvisor also acts as a booking platform, similar to those above, allowing users to directly book and pay for attractions, tours and accommodation through the site. In these cases, TripAdvisor charges a commission. For example, it charges commissions of 12-15% for handling accommodation reservations. TripAdvisor employs sales staff to proactively grow this side of its business.
Amnesty International found that TripAdvisor lists more than 70 different attractions, tours, restaurants, cafés, hotels and rental apartments in settlements in the OPT, including in East Jerusalem. These are located in at least 27 different settlements in the West Bank. Five hotels have more than 50 rooms. They are scattered across the area and are in both large and small settlements. They include government-run nature parks, museums and archaeological sites, as well as privately owned Israeli tourism-related businesses.
TripAdvisor acts a booking service for a number of these, for which it charges a commission. These include four tours run by the settler organization, Elad, in East Jerusalem, and five holiday rentals and a “desert safari” close to the Dead Sea. TripAdvisor also handles bookings (and therefore charges a commission) for a “2-hour shooting experience” at Calibre 3, a self-styled counter-terrorism training centre run by former members of the Israeli army. This costs US$170 per person. The centre is in the Gush Etzion settlement and invites tourists to “learn what it takes to be a counter-terror warrior”.
TripAdvisor is a particularly influential company as it plays a leading role in driving tourism to Israel and the OPT. It is the second most visited information website (after Google) reviewed by foreign tourists arriving in Israel, with over a quarter (more than 800,000 people) in 2017 saying that they had consulted the site before arrival.
TripAdvisor Inc. also owns a further 23 online brands. Several of these, including www.holidaylettings.co.uk and www.viator.com, allow users to make direct bookings for attractions or accommodation in settlements.
MISLEADING INFORMATION ON LOCATIONS
In 2016 the EU issued guidelines on how companies should label produce originating from the settlements. It stated that it would be “incorrect and misleading” were companies to label them as “produce of Israel”. To label them simply as produce “from the West Bank” would also mislead consumers regarding their true origin. Therefore, the EU advised that “product from the West Bank (Israeli settlement)” would be an accurate label.
This guidance provides digital tourism companies with an indication of how they should require settlement properties, activities and attractions to be listed. However, none of the companies researched require prospective hosts or operators whose properties, activities or attractions are situated within settlements to accurately indicate this fact in their listings.
Also, all four companies allow users of their websites to browse properties and attractions on its interface using Google Maps, which includes a line marking the border between Israel and the West Bank. This enables well-informed travellers to know if they will be renting a property or planning to visit an attraction inside the OPT or in Israel. However, Google Maps does not mark which areas within the OPT fall within the boundaries of the settlements.
As the account below shows, digital tourism companies are inconsistent in the way they require, enforce or permit the location of settlement listings to be described. As a result, users (who are prospective guests or visitors) are deprived of essential information for an accurate understanding of where they might be staying or what they might be visiting:
- Google Maps does not indicate that a listing in the OPT is within a settlement;
- the digital tourism companies do not require or enforce a geographical description along the lines recommended by the EU guidance for settlement produce;
- Israeli settlers do not (and most probably will not unless explicitly required to) describe their listings as located in an Israeli settlement in the OPT.
Airbnb makes no requirement on its website that people who host properties provide information about the property location. The full address of properties is only provided to guests after they have made a booking. Until that point, users to the site can only go by the information that hosts choose to make public. In the case of properties within settlements in the OPT, none of the hosts labelled their properties as such even though this is where they are located.
For instance, many falsely stated that properties in settlements in Area C of the West Bank were in Israel rather than the OPT. For example, a house in the settlement of Kalya (also spelt Kalia) was listed by its owners as being in “Kalya, Israel”. Similarly, the owner of an apartment in the settlement of Ma’ale HaZeitim in East Jerusalem misleadingly states that it is in Israel, rather than the OPT.
According to Airbnb company policy, listings are welcome as long as the “space is accurately represented, located where the host says it is”. Airbnb has also stated that if it discovers that a listing does not meet this guideline, it may exercise its discretion to “limit, suspend, deactivate, or cancel the host’s account”. In its “Standards and Expectations”, the company further emphasizes that hosts should “not provide inaccurate location information” and “mislead people about the type, nature, or details of” their listing. A company “team of experts” is apparently empowered to make an “enforcement decision” in relation to, among other things, false or incorrect listings.190 However, it is evident that settler listings are flouting the company’s stated requirements and that Airbnb is aware of this but is actively choosing not to exercise its enforcement discretion in relation to settlement listings.
Since October 2018, Booking.com has provided the most accurate information regarding properties on its website. For 25 of the 45 accommodation providers in settlements, Booking.com gives the address of the property as “the Palestinian Territories, Israeli Settlement”. However, Booking.com does not consistently label all properties in this way. In the other 20 cases, Booking.com either failed to check or misleadingly labelled properties as being in Israel. This included all of the properties (17) that the website listed in East Jerusalem. Before October 2018, Booking.com did not describe any properties as being in Israeli settlements in “the Palestinian Territories”. It is unclear why a uniform approach is not being applied consistently to ensure an accurate description of settlement listings.
Booking.com claims that a “support team” verifies properties before listing them to ensure they are “100% genuine”. Based on its current listings in settlements, it is clear that this verification process fails to adequately check if location descriptions are accurate. A settlement property described as being in Israel or simply in the OPT, is not a genuine representation of its true location.
Expedia’s flagship website, Expedia.com, had previously provided little information about property location, neither describing them as being in the OPT or in Israel. But since
November 2018, and at the time of writing, it has described six of the nine properties as being in “Israeli settlements”. The remaining three were still described as being in Israel (including two in East Jerusalem and one in the settlement of Har Adar) and none is described as being in the OPT. As noted above, the EU considers this to be an inaccurate description.
Expedia’s other website, Hotels.com, described the same six properties as being Israeli settlements in “Palestinian Territories”, while another was simply listed as being an Israeli
settlement. However, it also described two properties in East Jerusalem as being in Israel. Expedia provides very little information on its websites concerning standards and expectations relating to the accuracy and completeness of listing details, what it expects of hosts (defined by the company as “travel suppliers”) in this regard or any procedures to address inaccurate listings. The incomplete or inconsistent description of the location of settlement properties noted above suggests that the company does not have clear guidance on this. If it does, the company is not enforcing compliance and requiring hotel owners to accurately describe their location.
TripAdvisor’s geographical descriptions are also inconsistent. It described some attractions in settlements as being in the “Palestinian Territories”. But this is an incomplete description as the company does not clarify that they are inside Israeli settlements in the OPT. For example, the address of the ancient ruins inside the settlement of Shiloh in the north of the West Bank was simply given as “Road 60, Ariel 483000, Palestinian Territories”.
In other cases, TripAdvisor described settlements as being within Israel. For example, an apartment for rent in the settlement of Nof Ofra was misleadingly described as being in
“Jerusalem District, Israel”. Similarly, TripAdvisor gave the location of the Calibre 3 “shooting experience” in the settlement of Gush Etzion as “Gush Etzion, Israel”.
TripAdvisor claims to have a team of “editors” who verify property or attraction details before they are published. This does not appear to include verifying that the location of a prospective listing is accurately described. However, the fact that settlement listings are often described as located in Israel suggests that this is either not part of the verification process or, at the very least, that editors are ill-equipped to identify and address inaccuracies in settlement listings. While the company makes the supply of “true, accurate, current and complete”205 information an explicit condition of use of its services, it is evident that it is not adequately monitoring and/or enforcing this requirement.