By Massimiliano Sfregola and Paolo Rosi
“Companies do not do politics but business”, it is often said. Right. However, sometimes politics end up creating embarrassment to the business world, especially when it comes to the fruitful market of the online hotel reservations.
Let’s take as an example the disputed territories: how to proceed in case two countries are arguing between them to establish which one owns the sovereignty of a penisola or a piece of land? In principle the controversy should not matter so much: in fact, political disputes are and remain political.
Yet, what happens in case a supranational institution like the EU has imposed an economic embargo, as it happened in Crimea? Just a few days ago, the EU has confirmed for one year the prohibition for European companies to do business with the former territory of Ukraine, which last year passed to Russia. Yet, it seems like no one from Booking.com – well-known hotel reservation online company, based in Amsterdam – has noticed it. Do you maybe want to spend your holidays in Sevastopol or Yalta? No problem: on the website of the Dutch colossus you can choose among 3535 properties located on the peninsula, the bone of contention, despite the embargo.
On the website, the peninsula is almost presented as an independent State: there are no references to the Russian Federation, neither to Ukraine. Yet, we are not talking about an irrelevant matter or the quirk of a nerd in geopolitics. So here goes the reasoning: if a territory is disputed and an authority such as the EU imposes an embargo, then maintaining the business in that territory means fostering an economy that the embargo aims to damage. Logical, right? 31Mag has asked Booking.com its opinion on the matter. The press office replied the following:
“We are committed to support our partners in Crimea […] as elsewhere, we are confident in the growth of the business of our partners in the long run, and in the provision of facilities for all the needs of our customers.”
This is precisely what the EU wants to prevent: the growth of the business in Crimea, at least as long as the territorial issue is not resolved. Additionally, from Booking.com:
“The EU has issued a list of people with whom business should not be conducted, both without intermediaries or through companies related to them; we do not work with any of the names on the list nor with business associates, so we are transparent and in line with the rules.”
In fact, only 50% of the explanation is true: the EU has indeed issued a list of people and companies with which it is forbidden to do business. However, a separate entry was created for the regulation on the tourism sector.
EU operators will no more be permitted to offer tourism services in Crimea or Sevastopol.
So, why does Booking.com continue to promote the reservation of properties in Crimea? An American reporter has asked himself the same question on the site Tnooz. He writes:
“European-headquartered, online travel intermediaries interpret that regulation as something that doesn’t apply to them”.
In a nutshell, intermediaries as Skyscanner or Trivago have exempted themselves from the regulations because their services would only provide a bridge between already existing services and customers. And apparently Booking.com thinks the same way. But then, how come that competitors such as Expedia and Airbnb have adapted their policies to the embargo imposed by the EU? Perhaps the situation is less clear and transparent than how it is presented by the press office. Besides, in their explanation they seem to confuse the sanctions against Russian individuals and companies, imposed by US/EU and allies, with the full interdiction imposed to the participation in economic activities in Crimea. The first concerns the crisis in Crimea and in particular the tensions in the breakaway region of Donbass, where Russia is not – formally – part of the dispute. In the case of the peninsula of the Black Sea, however, Moscow has a direct responsibility, at least according to the EU/US.
So Booking.com fails also in International Relations.
However, on the Dutch website the case of Crimea is not the only one; another case concerns the “evergreen” of territorial disputes, namely the Israel-Palestine question. Also in this case we leave aside the political history and we limit ourselves to the facts: the so-called Israeli settlements, which are actually in the West Bank and thus Palestinian territory, and which are considered illegal by the UN and the EU, are according to Booking.com located in Israel.
It is not a matter of mere denomination: some holiday resorts are presented by the company as they were located in Israel, although they are located in places that the international law defines “illegal settlements” in Palestinian territory; this is the case of the bed and breakfast “Naomi’s”, in the popular tourist area of Ramot, a few kilometers from the Sea of Galilee, or the “Si-Har Chatelet”, in Nimrod, on the Golan Heights, same for the luxurious “Between Water and Sky” in Neot Golan, or of the “Hunter’s Lodge” in Nete Ativ, property on the slopes of Mount Hermon.
Further south, in the West Bank, we find other similar cases: both the “Almog Kibbutz Hotel” in Almog and the “Smadar BaMidbar” in Vered Yeriho are tourist facilities close to the Dead Sea. Once again, according to Booking.com they are located in Israel and not in Palestine.
The company has lately corrected the name of some properties, such as the “Kalia Hotel” or the “Lodge Tekoa”, which are now labelled as “Israeli Settlements”. The correction was made after an investigation by the blog The Electronic Intifada. In fact it was an appropriate correction, in line with what had been decided on the matter by the Court of Justice of the European Union, which has confirmed that no product from not recognised territories can be sold in Europe as if it was Israeli.
In the latter case, the omission of Booking.com is with respect to the wrong geographic location of the place. In fact, the EU has not imposed any sanction to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and, therefore, the activities of the online company are undoubtedly legal. However, it remains debatable the fact that such an important company is doing business in a territory which is considered a military occupation by the main supranational institutions.
To make things more complicated, according to Booking.com, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. True? One of Israel’s fundamental Law – the so called Jerusalem Law- declared in 1980 the city as undivided capital of the country but the international community never recognized such claim.
Is it ethical to promote holidays and leisure in areas which the international community considers forcibly seized by the Israeli authorities?
While the answer to this question is subjective, we can objectively claim that Booking.com, besides failing in Geopolitics and International Relations, fails also in History.