After Avi Barkai and Ben Shukrun, two childhood friends from Kibbutz Ein Gedi, traveled from Melbourne to Cairns in a VW camper van as part of their post-army trip, they decided that one day they would use this icon of 70s hippie culture as part of a tourism venture.
“The VW camper van was a big part of our experience. It’s a symbol of carefree times and freedom. You pile your surfboards in, park next to the ocean, then go surfing. We lived in it, ate in it and slept in it,” says Barkai nostalgically.
It took quite a few years before they were able to fulfill their plan.
Back in Israel in 2013, the pair took over running a kiosk on Ein Gedi beach. Following a break-in, they and the regional council decided to add a camping site on the beach to increase movement in the area.
Then sinkholes started to appear on the beach and the site became dangerous and was shut down.
Undeterred, Barkai and Shukrun asked the secretariat of Kibbutz Ein Gedi for land on which to build a holiday village.
“Our plan was to fill the gap between the luxurious hotels at the Dead Sea and the Ein Gedi Youth Hostel. We wanted to offer reasonably priced accommodation but with a special and unique atmosphere and design.”
Ein Gedi Camp Lodge (Khan Ein Gedi in Hebrew) opened in 2016 adjacent to the entrance of Kibbutz Ein Gedi.
Situated on a hillside, it has a spectacular view over the turquoise waters and salt formations of the Dead Sea and the Jordanian mountains on the other side.
“In the early years most of the holidaymakers who came were European backpackers and English was the language mostly heard. At night everyone socialized around the bar and it was a very friendly atmosphere with music. Travelers met other travelers and often continued their journey together,” recalls Barkai.
Piece of paradise
As business was going well, the pair decided it was finally time to get the VW campers and add them to the other accommodation options (bungalows, tents and an area for people bringing their own caravan or tent).
The pair could not find suitable retro camper vans in Israel. Eventually they ordered them from China and the VWs arrived only two weeks before the pandemic shut Israel down in March 2020 and affected the supply chain worldwide.
With foreign tourism down to zero, Ein Gedi Camp Lodge may not have survived. Fortunately during the pandemic, Israelis started discovering local travel and this southern piece of paradise came under their radar.
A nostalgic sight
Entering the Camp Lodge compound, it’s hard to miss the lineup of brightly colored VW camper vans.
They are not just for show. The engines have been removed and the roof raised so guests can stand up in the vans.
Barkai tells ISRAEL21c that they are very comfortable for a couple and even include built-in air-conditioning, a must in an area that can reach 45 degrees Celsius (113F) in summer.
The camper vans also have a deck outside, complete with a relaxing hammock. A few plants add a touch of greenery in this landscape of sandy tones.
Corona changed the tourist profile
Although foreign tourism has bounced back, Barkai says most of the guests these days are locals and not backpackers.
On weekdays there are many singles and couples, and on the weekends there are more families.
Couples also rent out the whole lodge for weddings, mainly from March to April when the weather is slightly more temperate.
The menu served at the bar/restaurant, with its wooden tables and raffia lampshades, features fruit shakes, thin-crust pizza baked in a taboon, chicken nuggets, shakshuka and a variety of salads. There is also a self-catering area with fridges and stoves.
Both Barkai and Shukrun live with their families on Kibbutz Ein Gedi. It has changed a lot over the years, Barkai admits.
“When we grew up, you ate three meals a day in the dining room and you could go to the fridge and open it when you were hungry. Today only one meal is served. Also when you got to 13 years old you could decide to live outside of your parents’ home with other teenagers.”
Although Ein Gedi Camp Lodge is not a part of the kibbutz, it is well situated for guests to enjoy the kibbutz’s Botanical Garden and swimming pool at a reduced fee. Easy hikes to the Nahal David waterfall begin at its doorstep.
Barkai, whose wife Kati manages the marketing side of the business, is glad that his family is involved.
“The Khan is a second home to my three kids and I am glad we as the next generation carry on living and investing here in this special part of Israel.”
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