'Gay Tel Aviv' is here to stay

The city is creating a name for itself internationally as a place worth visiting if you are a gay man or woman looking for top-class facilities.

Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade 521 (photo credit: Yoni Cohen)
Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade 521
(photo credit: Yoni Cohen)
A tour of the Old City in Jerusalem. A relaxing break at a Dead Sea resort spa. A pilgrimage tour of the Galilee area. These are just some of the many things that have brought millions of tourists to Israel over the years.
Not many would think of adding Tel Aviv’s gay scene to this list. However, this is changing. With one of the most vibrant gay scenes in the Middle East – and, arguably, the world – Tel Aviv has put itself on the global map as the “in” place to be.
It may not be one of Israel’s most traditional tourist attractions, but “Gay Tel Aviv” is here to stay.
Although Tel Aviv itself is one of Israel’s biggest tourist hot spots, attracting thousands of tourists every year who come to enjoy its great beaches and unique buzz, it is only recently that foreign tourists have begun visiting the “New York of the Middle East” purely because of its gay scene.
The gay scene in Tel Aviv has been thriving for years with a bustling party scene as well as a large support network dealing with community issues. Many gay men and women from around the country have been flocking to Tel Aviv since the ’90s to set up home there because of the city’s relaxed attitude and carefree vibe.
But it is only in the past three or four years that foreign tourists have started to take advantage of “the bubble’s” tolerant attitude.
“The gay tourist wants the same things as everyone else,” explains Russell Lord, who is considered one of the founders of bringing gay tourism to Israel, adding: “The gay tourist does, however, expect the best and will stop at nothing to achieve it.”
Lord organizes specialist trips for discerning gay tourists from all around the world. Without the traditional responsibilities of children and married life – even though that is rapidly changing – gay men and women have the freedom to travel more; and when they do, they do it in style.
“The ‘pink pound’ is very strong and represents the fact that gay people want the best. They work hard for their money and like to enjoy it,” Lord says.
“Most of the tourists that I am in contact with are aged 35 to 40 and up, and mainly come from North America and Western Europe. They are in a higher income bracket, which gives them more available spending money.”
Unlike most gay destinations around the world, Tel Aviv does not have a specific “gay area.” There are certain hubs where gay facilities are more abundant, but there is no traditional center or street like there is in other destinations such as San Francisco and London.
This may have something to do with the extraordinarily liberal attitude among most residents of Tel Aviv. There is no real need for a specific center because gay people can feel comfortable throughout the city, a luxury not shared by many other large cities.
Lord points out that there is not even a specific “gay hotel” in Tel Aviv.
“In all the years I have been organizing gay tours, I have never once had a problem with any hotel that has known the booking is for gay people.
“Although Israel is a place of religion or pilgrimage for many people,” Lord continues, “I see Israel as a regular tourist destination. Tel Aviv in itself has enough to offer as an international destination to which people can come just to appreciate its great attractions.”
The city is creating a name for itself internationally as a place worth visiting if you are a gay man or woman looking for top-class facilities. In the past two or three years, it has begun to feature in a number of international publications as a gay destination that must not be missed.
With it being a young niche market, there are only a few tour operators specializing in gay tourism in Tel Aviv. Even within this very limited market, these companies offer different packages to the very discerning gay tourist.
“We have the beach, sun, sea, beautiful people and the best night life – we have everything,” says Lior Gonen, from the TheGayWay, a Tel Aviv tour operator specializing in exclusively gay tailor-made tours. “Gay tourism in Tel Aviv is growing, and it will continue to grow.”
Gonen believes in people power, and says outgoing tourism is just important as incoming.
“Israelis like to travel, and when they speak to others, especially in the US, about how great Tel Aviv is, it really creates an interest,” she says.
Even though an increase in gay tourism is a relatively new trend, Gonen suggests that Tel Aviv is following a global trend in which gays and lesbians want to travel the world and have a good time in an environment in which they can feel comfortable.
When asked if there is anyone who openly opposes what she is doing, Gonen responds defiantly, “When I believe in something, I am unstoppable – I don’t believe that anyone can stop anyone else from doing something.”
Both Gonen and Lord commend the work that the Tel Aviv Municipality and Tourism Ministry are doing to promote gay tourism and gay life in general. The local council is investing time and resources in something that is really benefiting the city.
The annual Gay Pride parade, partly funded by the municipality, attracts more and more foreign tourists each year. In March this year, an Israeli stand encouraging gay tourism to Tel Aviv appeared for the first time at the highly regarded ITB international tourism exhibition in Berlin.
“This is just the beginning,” says Gonen. “Just three years ago, no one was really was talking about Tel Aviv as a global gay center.”