By RON FRIEDMAN
In the eyes of Israelis, Tel Aviv may be a liberal and gay-friendly city, but a new survey of gays from abroad found Tel Aviv unsafe, intolerant and too religious.
The survey results were released on Sunday to a group of gay tourism professionals, as part of the International Gay and Lesbian Tourism Association annual conference and symposium being held in Tel Aviv.
Tourism professionals specializing in the gay and lesbian market are in Israel this week to get a first-hand view of the country, so that they can pass the information on to their clients. Based out of Tel Aviv, the group will also tour Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and the North before moving on to other countries.
According to preliminary results of a survey conducted by the US-based Out Now consulting, which specializes in the gay and lesbian market, only 5 percent of the people polled said they were very likely to visit Tel Aviv as a tourism destination, while 46% said they were very unlikely to do so.
The survey, which polled 900 people from Germany, London and the New York region who identify as homosexual, found that the likelihood of a visit grew if the person asked knew someone who had visited Tel Aviv.
The main reasons given for not coming to Israel were: safety concerns (84%), regional conflict (70%), perceptions of Tel Aviv being too religious (62%) and the belief that homosexuals are unwelcome (41%).
When asked what would draw them to Tel Aviv, 67% said cited the beaches, 65% said they would come to experience the local culture, 59% mentioned Israel's rich history, 43% were attracted by the prospect of visiting Jerusalem and 31% said they would come for the Gay and Lesbian night life that the city has to offer.
According to Out Now CEO Ian Johnson, the final results of the survey will be published in a few days. Johnson was optimistic about the survey results, pointing to the relatively high proportion of people who answered maybe/maybe not when asked if they would visit Tel Aviv.
"This is a group that we can work with. With the aid of marketing and communication these people can be moved into the likely category," he said.
Despite the mildly negative survey results, Tel Aviv will continue to be heavily touted as a gay tourism destination. The fact that the annual conference is being held there is a testimony to the efforts put forward by the municipality to develop rainbow tourism.
"Tel Aviv is Israel's capital of commerce, economy, culture and nearly everything else. It adds honor to the country as a whole because of the values it holds dear," Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said.
"Yesterday, I participated in a Simhat Torah celebration and someone came up to me and urged me to stop holding the Pride Parade in the city. That is the nature of democracy; different people have different ideas. All I can say is that gay pride is part of the life of the city and everyone here is free to be whatever they want."
Tel Aviv council member Yaniv Waizman is the driving force behind the city's gay-friendly initiatives. He said that despite the shooting that took place in the gay and lesbian youth center on August 1, Tel Aviv was very open to homosexuals. "The shooting was traumatic, but it made us stronger and just increased our willingness to succeed," he said.
He added that what is necessary for future success is increased marketing budgets, a gay-orientated information booth and the goodwill of the citizens and service providers to welcome those who come to the city. Waizman asked the foreign visitors to be Israel's ambassadors to the gay community and attempt to break down the common misconceptions.
"Looking at this full hall is a dream come true. We are just at the beginning, but this conference is the product of five years of hard work," said Mike Hammel, chairman of Israel's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Association. "We always believed we had a good product and slowly we are getting the industry's attention... I am sure that by the end of your visit you will also be convinced we have a winning product."
The international gay tourism market is estimated at 70 million travelers who spend $64 billion a year. The municipality already offers gay-themed tours of the city, but according to tour guide Ronen Lev, the tours have not yet caught on.
"What is needed is aggressive marketing abroad. Many are trying to reach the lucrative niche market, but so far activities have been sporadic," he said.
In anticipation of the conference, a small group of protesters stood outside the G.L.B.T. Community Center to demonstrate against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The group members all wore black shirts with "Queers for Palestine" printed on them.
"We are queer activist here to protest the promotion of gay tourism to Israel and to encourage queers to visit Palestine," said a man who identified himself as Zohar, the group's spokesman. "This has been an issue that has been manipulated in the last few months, especially since the shooting in Tel Aviv, but even before that, to supposedly represent the liberal State of Israel... As queer people, we don't want to be used as a poster for human rights."
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