Thanks to internationally renowned street artist Banksy, you can travel to a Bethlehem resort with this slogan: "The worst view of any hotel in the world." In doing so, you'll also venture smack-dab into the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It's called the Walled Off Hotel, and it rests immediately adjacent to the Palestine Wall, meant to keep Palestinians from freely traveling into Israel. It really is a fully functioning hotel, albeit one in a contentious area, filled with artwork by Banksy (and other artists) offering commentary on a deadly conflict that seems as if it will never end.
An entire hotel, as art?
Well, Banksy's no stranger to audacious artwork. The hotel is regarded as a follow-up to Dismaland, a temporary installation that sprung up in 2015 near the resort of Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, England. The "bemusement park" was a scathing critique of consumerism in modern life, and it attracted huge crowds but was dismantled at the artist's order after a month.
An Extended One-year Run
The Walled Off Hotel first opened in 2017 and was meant for a one-year run. Instead, four years later, it's still operating. No one's sure why Banksy – who remains titillatingly anonymous – has made an exception for the timeline of this particular installation.
But there's no mistaking its draw. Since its opening, the hotel has welcomed more than 140,000 visitors, a number that would undoubtedly be higher had the coronavirus pandemic not temporarily halted business.
This is no bombed-out building. Instead, the hotel features everything from spartan to luxurious accommodations. And, of course, there are the endlessly creative touches, including security cameras mounted like deer heads on the walls, alongside sledgehammers and slingshots, all symbols of the violence and suppression rampant in these parts.
For about $60, budget-minded travelers find themselves in a bunker-style room outfitted with surplus items from Israeli military barracks. On the other end of the scale, you can spend nearly $1,000 per night for the presidential suite. As the hotel's website says, this "palatial suite is equipped with everything a corrupt head of state would need."
No matter the price of the accommodations, the art in every room is considered priceless. That said, upon departure, guests are required to sign a disclaimer that they haven't taken anything from the room.
Nicole Jacobs-Licht is an artist and teacher from Atlanta who describes herself as a huge fan of Banksy's work. She visited the hotel in 2018 and loved every moment of the experience. But her description makes it clear that a visit to this area requires a spirit of adventure and some fortitude. She said the worst part was crossing the boundary between the two contentious nations.
"I was interrogated very much about why I was there, where I was going, why was I solo," she says via email interview. "I said I was there to see the religious sites and visit the museums (as the hotel said I should say; it's also why I paid for a transfer to and from the hotel, to help me navigate all of that). Traveling as a woman solo is questioned by the Israelis. I was definitely not welcomed, and [I was] taken into an interrogation room."
There are no international airports in Palestine, so you can only enter overland through Israel; the Palestinian border is controlled by the Israeli authorities, so crossing can be a bit of a challenging experience. As the Walled Off website states: "Airport security at Tel Aviv, however, is legendary. Expect to be asked about the purpose of your stay and if you intend travelling to the West Bank. If you answer 'yes' you may be held up for some time."
If you decide to make the journey to the Walled Off Hotel, Jacobs-Licht makes a few recommendations. For starters, she says, don't just stop by the hotel and gawk – be sure to book a room, for multiple nights, if possible, to really get the full experience.
She stayed in a different room each night, including the Banksy Scenic Suite, Scenic Suite 2, the phenomenal Presidential Suite, and the Budget Barracks.
"The artwork is unique to the hotel and the conflict, it is like being inside a museum. Everywhere is an artwork. Every room is an artwork. It is a cerebral and visual experience."
In all, she spent four nights, giving her a chance to soak up the artwork and also take day trips to see parts of Palestine.
Advice for Visitors: Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Preparation is vital. She recommends that people watch documentaries about the conflict so that they understand the complexities and harsh realities of the political situation before they visit. She also said to make the most of the experience by trying everything, including the well-reviewed museum inside the hotel.
"Have proper tea and breakfast in the Walled Off restaurant, surrounded by art and meeting other travelers," she says. "Go on the Green Olive Tours, offered to teach more about the wall and the conflict; one tour includes discussing the wall at the hotel, and the Banksy pieces on it, and walking you through the Aida Refugee Camp."
These experiences will also help you connect with other travelers, who will share their perspectives on the situation.
It's worth noting that although this area is technically under the control of the Israeli military, legally, its status is much murkier. Various checkpoints and roads around the hotel make the journey there from Israel challenging. But it is ultimately regarded as a safe place to be – at least, for the moment. And given the hotel's high ratings and its educational potential, the effort seems to be worthwhile.
"The Palestinians are lovely people in a bad situation," says Jacobs-Licht. "I was able to speak English with everyone. I walked alone at night by myself and felt safe. Women stopped to talk and hugged me. Everyone wanted to talk. I traveled by bus to Jerusalem city, went through the locals' checkpoint at the wall. It was very eye opening."
For anyone who loves art or yearns for another perspective on one of the world's most heart wrenching dramas, the Walled Off Hotel offers rooms with many different views. But until further notice, it's closed to the public until the coronavirus pandemic situation improves. You can check the website for updates on room availability.
The address of the Walled Off is 182 Caritas Street, Bethlehem, Palestine and the email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now That's Interesting
Next to the hotel is Wall Mart, where you can buy spray paint and create your own Banksy-style stencils. Then, you can stroll right outside and leave your own artistic statement on this infamous border wall. It won't last long – the wall is regularly painted over so that new visitors can leave their marks. But it's a shared experience for anyone who appreciates the collision of politics and art.
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