The Rainbow Road to Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv has sun and it has fun. It has world-class beaches and cafés, restaurants, nightclubs and an old city, Jaffa, with winding alleys, galleries and boutiques. Because Tel Aviv has everything a tourist might desire, it is no surprise that Lonely Planet ranked it third among the top 10 cities to visit in 2011. National Geographic declared it one of the 10 best seaside cities and Playboy, predictably, reported that its women are beautiful.
Now the city has another feather in its cap: Last year, American Airlines named Tel Aviv Best Gay City of 2011, as the result of a poll sponsored by the airlines on leading LGBT travel Web site GayCities.com. Tel Aviv garnered 43 percent of the votes (the runner-up was New York with only 14 percent), and the site described the city as “the gay capital of the Middle East, exotic and welcoming, with a Mediterranean c’est la vie attitude.”
To outsiders, this accolade might seem less self-evident than the others, but for Israeli tour operator Israel Rodrigue of Ofakim Travel & Tours it is perfectly natural.
Tel Aviv is one of the few cities in the world that does not have a gay ghetto, said Rodrigue, who specializes in gay tourism. “The whole city is gay friendly.”
As an example, he offered trendy Sheinkin Street, where “you have Breslov Hasidim and you have all the gays and young men and women, all mixed together.”
Last year’s Gay Pride Week—an annual event that takes place in June—started off on Hilton Beach (known locally as the gay beach) with a DJ and party. The city was bedecked with rainbow flags; even major crosswalks were repainted in rainbow colors. Cultural events included lectures, exhibitions and performances of music, dance and theater. There were also family-oriented picnics and a speech by United States Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, who dressed in a rainbow-flag T-shirt and shared the stage with dancers and drag queens. A Madonna concert on May 31 was a huge draw.
The annual Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade—this year on June 7—attracts over 100,000 people each year, some of them Orthodox, and is a Tel Aviv highlight, with its brightly colored floats and marchers. Last year, some marchers wore ornate feather headgear, rivaling anything at the Rio de Janeiro carnival. There were men and women in elaborate glittery getups—and a lot of skin. The parade passes through the city’s main streets and ends with a huge party at Gordon Beach.
Interest in Tel Aviv as a gay destination has been building in recent years. In 2009, the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association held its first symposium in Israel. The association’s Web site, www.iglta.org, pitched Israel as both the Holy Land and a holiday land “with the most liberal laws regarding all LGBT issues” in the Middle East. And it mentioned Tel Aviv’s obvious attractions: sidewalk cafés, exclusive shops, beaches, outdoor markets and International Style architecture—the White City, a Unesco World Heritage site.
No one has exact figures for the number of LGBT visitors. But based on hotel occupancy figures, Rodrigue hazarded a guess that of the country’s 3.5 million visitors in 2012, some 20,000 were gay tourists who stayed in hotels and about 10,000 stayed with friends or in rented rooms or apartments. Many arrived in June, he said, during Pride Week.
Rodrigue expects a substantial increase this year, thanks, in part, to the publicity from the American Airlines poll, which was reported around the world. A video clip on YouTube, for example, shows poll results being reported in the Malayalam language in India.
“There are a lot of inquiries,” Rodrigue said, adding that in March 2012 he attended ITB in Berlin, the most important professional tourism trade fair, where for the first time the nonprofit International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association had a booth. This year Rodrigue ran a separate Tel Aviv LGBT booth.
But gay interest in Tel Aviv did not just happen. Yaniv Poria, a professor of tourism and hospitality management at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has conducted interviews with travel agents and gay and lesbian travelers. “[They] know that Israel is a pioneer in equality in the armed forces and a place that is democratic in contrast to the surrounding countries,” he said. “So they see Israel more positively than the general population in Europe does.”
Several factors give Tel Aviv itself a gay friendly image, Poria said. For example, the openly lesbian daughter of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert lives in the city as does transgender singer Dana International, who has twice represented Israel in the Eurovision song contest, winning it in 1998.
But this alone could not account for the level of interest. Israel is actively cultivating the LGBT market as part of a campaign to rebrand the country.
Russell Lord, a tour operator with Kenes Tours since 1987, claims to have been the first Israeli to focus on gay travel, long before the Tourism Ministry got involved.
After reading about the growth of the gay tourist market in Europe and the United States, he met with the management of Kenes and proposed making Israel a gay destination. According to Lord, their response was, “Go for it!”
Lord traveled to the United States, where he visited gay and lesbian organizations, churches and synagogues. Then the city of Tel Aviv got involved, starting with a tiny budget (about $13,000) in 2008, according to Merav Uziel-Refetov, deputy general manager of the Tel Aviv Tourist Association. In conjunction with the Aguda (the National Association of LGBT in Israel), the city added a Gays in TLV page to its tourism Web site (www.visit-tlv.com), participated in tourism fairs, used social networks and placed ads in magazines.
In July 2010, together with the Tourism Ministry, the Tel Aviv Tourist Association launched a six-month Tel Aviv Gay Vibe campaign, and then another in 2011. Each campaign’s budget was 10 times the association’s original budget. However, it is still only a fraction of the ministry’s overall marketing budget, which was $63 million for 2011, according to Pini Shani, the ministry’s deputy director of overseas marketing. The ministry also collaborated with travel agencies around the world.
After the American Airlines announcement, longtime Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai took a victory drive through the city. There was something ironic about his participation because, in 1998, before his first election as mayor, he had encountered strong opposition from the city’s LGBT community.
They had not forgiven him for his remarks in three 1995 interviews. In the first two, both for the local weekly Ha’ir, he reportedly said he was disgusted by the sight of two men kissing. Then, after announcing his (unsuccessful) bid for a Knesset seat in October 1995, he reportedly told the weekly Tel Aviv, “I have no problems with a person’s sexual preferences. Really. It’s just a technical matter, a kind of reflex. When you see a cockroach, for example, don’t you feel disgusted?”
Now, what is good for Tel Aviv is good for Huldai.
What exactly do gay visitors to Israel want? To answer that, perhaps one must start with what they do not want. Poria conducted a study in 2006 on how gay tourists are served in Israeli hotels. His main finding was that hotels had not yet internalized the fact that two same-sex people traveling together might be a couple; hotel staff would routinely offer such travelers rooms with two beds and address them as if they were two unrelated people.
“If a hotel guest receives a certain kind of bed or if a couple is related to as two separate people, they perceive it as nonacceptance,” Poria said. And that is unfortunate, because of the importance of the tourist experience for gays, he said. As tourists they are essentially anonymous and thus in a freer environment than at home, he said, and these factors are crucial for “their identity construction and for examining their sexual identity.”
To sidestep hotels’ lack of sensitivity, Lord said he specifies a king-size bed in each room when booking for gay groups.
Another thing gay tourists want, Poria said, is to feel safe in the space around the hotel.
“Gay people walk hand in hand in Tel Aviv and nobody pays attention,” Lord said. Despite an attack in 2009 on the gay youth club Bar Noar, in which two youngsters were shot to death and 15 were wounded, incidents of violence against gays are isolated.
Gay visitors also want to know that “they have places of entertainment geared to them,” Poria said. A requirement met abundantly in the city.
“We are one of the few cities in the world where the whole subject of gays has received recognition from the city,” Rodrigue said. “Tel Aviv opened a gay center in Meir Park; it’s an official city institution.”
The three-story LGBT Community Center in Meir Park, built in the International Style for which Tel Aviv is famous, opened in 2008. It houses gay organizations, cultural activities, social services, a health clinic and Café Landver, which has become a meeting place for the LGBT community. Other cafés popular with LGBT locals include Beta and Griga (2 Levontin) and Idelson 10 (117 Dizengoff).
On Fridays, guides lead a free, city-sponsored historic walking tour that includes such points as the site where Israel’s Declaration of Independence was made. The tour starts near the Shalom Tower, continues on Sheinkin—considered an LGBT hot spot—and on Rothschild Boulevard, also an area with large LGBT concentrations, passes Bar Noar and ends at the center in Meir Park.
Gay visitors also want the best of everything and can afford to pay for it, Lord said. Poria pointed out that they have more disposable income and spend much more money than the average tourist.
That is why Rodrigue plays up the pampering spa experience at the Dead Sea. But his focus remains Tel Aviv.
“We sell Tel Aviv as a destination, not as part of Israel or as part of the Holy Land,” he said, “[though] when visitors are here we offer them tours.”
Lord’s approach is different. “I’m not just selling fun-in-the-sun tours; my tours are educational,” he said.
He goes beyond the standard program, incorporating elements of special interest to his clientele. For example, during a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust authority, in Jerusalem, Lord makes certain that the guide points out that when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 he banned all homosexual groups in Germany and later sent homosexuals—regardless of ethnicity or religion—to concentration camps. They were made to wear a distinctive badge and were singled out for harsh treatment; thousands of them perished.
When Lord arranges a visit to a kibbutz, a gay member meets the group and describes his or her experiences. Even in Israel’s Supreme Court in Jerusalem, the tour is tailored to the interests of an LGBT audience.
“It is a very important site to visit, considering that we do not have a constitution and that it is the body assigned to protect its citizens,” Lord explained. There the guide will speak about the legal situation of gays and lesbians in Israel.
But Lord is proudest of the seminars he has organized in Jordan, part of tour packages to Israel and Jordan, to which he has invited gay activists from Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Authority.
“The highlight of my career is to sit in a room with 20 or 25 Canadian and European tourists listening to Lebanese, Palestinians and Israelis describing what life is like for them,” he said.
And visitors who want to add a distinctly Jewish aspect to their experience will find it in the Jerusalem Open House (www.joh.org.il), which, among its activities, includes a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat, holiday celebrations and study of Jewish texts. Purim was celebrated in 2013, for example, with a women’s dance party at Hashchena Pub, a new hip destination in the Mahane Yehuda market, a pajama party for the 18 to 23 crowd and a costume party for the entire LGBT community.
Information about gay tourism to Israel is available online. Besides the Tel Aviv Gay Vibe campaign (www.facebook.com/TelAvivGay Vibe), the Gay TLV guide (www.gaytlvguide.com) lists gay clubs, bars and saunas. And the tourism page of the Aguda (www.gayisrael.org.il/tourism.php) offers a Hot City Pass, which provides discounts and benefits at restaurants, shops, bars, clubs, tourist attractions and gyms.
Not everyone, however, is happy with Israel’s attempts to attract gay visitors, and some cite inflated figures (increased by a factor of 1,000 or more) as part of their argument against Israel’s investment in this market. In 2007, Orthodox Members of Knesset reacted angrily to the promotion of gay tourism to Jerusalem and received a promise from then-tourism minister, Yitzhak Aharonovich, that he would instruct his office not to continue the campaign, according to the online Ynet news site.
Evangelical Christians, strong supporters of Israel and a vast and lucrative tourism market, also oppose homosexuality and anything that they view as encouraging it. One travel operator who works with many such groups refused to comment or be identified in this story because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Other critics accuse Israel of pinkwashing—attempting to counter criticism of the occupation of Palestinian areas by presenting the country as the lone beacon of gay tolerance in the Middle East. One of these critics is Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, a group that formed “to work in solidarity with queers in Palestine and Palestine solidarity movements around the world.”
Lihi Rothschild, a bisexual activist, takes a similar tack against the government’s use of its gay population to market the country. “They are using us as a fig leaf,” she said at Jerusalem’s Pride Parade in 2011.
Sarah Schulman, a professor of humanities at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, wrote in a 2011 Op-Ed in The New York Times, “In Israel, gay soldiers and the relative openness of Tel Aviv are incomplete indicators of human rights…. The long-sought realization of some rights for some gays should not blind us to…the Palestinians’ insistence on a land to call home.”
But for Poria it is clear on the basis of his research that Israel should continue cultivating the LGBT market. “This population is very loyal,” he said. “If you know how to provide the correct services, studies show they come back, and not necessarily in peak season.”
Gay Rights in Israel
At least on the books, Israel has made great strides over the years: Despite opposition by religious parties, in 1988, it rescinded the law against male homosexual intercourse and other consensual sexual activities.
In 1992, discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation became illegal and, in 1993, the Knesset set up a subcommittee, headed by Member of Knesset Yael Dayan, on lesbian, gay and bisexual rights.
That same year, the Israel Defense Forces abolished all restrictions based on sexual orientation, which meant that it could not be used to exclude soldiers from access to special information or from jobs that require such information.
The Supreme Court recognized same-sex partner benefits in the private sector in 1994 and, in 1997, recognized them in the public sector. That year, the court ordered the education minister to allow a discussion of teen homosexuality on television.
In 2000, the court recognized a lesbian woman as the adoptive mother of the child of her same-sex partner and six years later ordered the state to recognize marriages abroad of same-sex Israeli couples.