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Backstory: Extreme vacation

Hospitality Club sets up travelers with holidays off - way off - the beaten path.

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The streets of this seething Palestinian refugee camp, just outside Bethlehem, are dirty and crowded. The main street, where screeching strains of a political rally mingle with the din of animal and mechanical obstacles, gives off onto a dismal lane where Hamas posters merge with graffiti and a ragged Fatah flag flutters.

This hardly looks like the ideal holiday spot. But nestled on this chaotic lane is the al-Haj apartment: tourist destination.

Vacationing in a Palestinian refugee camp - past Israeli military checkpoints and onto streets most often photographed for nightly news not tourist brochures - may seem unlikely. But a stream of foreigners - Americans, English, Dutch - booking stays at Yasser al-Haj's apartment here prove otherwise. Despite frequent blackouts, Israeli army incursions, a lack of hot water, and nary a mint on the pillow, some foreigners find the West Bank - and other global hot spots like Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan - prime vacation territory.

Mr. Haj, a Palestinian who's lived here all his life, is one of more than 100,000 members of Hospitality Club, an Internet-based organization that puts travelers in touch with each other, favoring free home stays and personal introductions over generic hotel accommodation and guided tours. Through the club, vacationers connect with one another and arrange to meet for dinner, drinks, or sightseeing in the host's city, or stay at his or her home. In Haj's case, this is a small ground floor apartment that he shares with his aging parents, in the dismal depths of the West Bank.

The majority of HC members from 188 countries live in pleasant Western locations. A handful, like Haj, are from truly off-the-beaten-track countries unlikely to make the Top 5 - or even Top 105 - holiday destinations.


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