Beirut, Tel Aviv battle it out for 'pink dollars'

Gay tourism is a multi-billion-dollar industry and the two Mediterranean cities are both angling for a piece of the action.

Call it the newest Arab-Israeli conflict. 
Two Mediterranean hotspots, each boasting a trendy nightlife, warm climate and carefree attitude, are vying for the pink dollars of the world’s gay tourists. Tel Aviv, Israel’s cultural and business capital, has already earned its place as a must-go destination for globe-trotting gays, and now Beirut is making its pitch, too.
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“Western travelers come to us to feel the Arabian spirit,” Bertho Makso, Lebanon’s first and perhaps best-known gay travel operator, told The Media Line. “And Arabs have come to feel more comfortable.”
The global gay tourism industry is a booming, billion-dollar industry. With higher than average disposable income, and into shopping and culture, gay tourists are a desirable market.  Last year, the economic impact of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered travelers was about $63 billion in the US alone, according to a study from Community Marketing Inc., a San Francisco-based market research firm.
Beirut and Tel Aviv are less than 200 kilometers (125 miles) apart on the Mediterranean coast, but two-city package tours for gays are not in going to be offered anytime soon. Israel and Lebanon are officially at war. In 2006, Israel and Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim fundamentalist organization based in Lebanon, fought a one-month war that left hundreds dead.
Tel Aviv has the advantage of being in a country where the laws are favorable and homosexuality is widely accepted.  In Lebanon, homosexuality is officially illegal, even if the law is seldom enforced.
“We’re not talking about an actively homophobic state,” said Rasha Moumneh, a researcher for the Middle East and North Africa for Human Rights Watch. “They’re not going out and just arresting gay men.” 
Known as the Paris of the Middle East until the country’s devastating 1975-1990 civil war, Beirut is home to posh gay-friendly nightclubs, glitzy bars and restaurants.  Many report that Beirut has become much more tolerant of gay culture and nightlife over the last 10 years. The International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association held a symposium in the city for the first time earlier this month. 
Makso, 29, launched his LebTour travel agency in 2005.  By night, he escorts visitors to Beirut’s gay clubs and bars; by day, he leads them around the country to learn about its history and culture.
In the five years Makso has been operating LebTour, he says his client base has grown five-fold to over 500 gay tourists a year, mainly from Europe but increasingly from the US as well. He says also runs gay-themed tours to Syria and Jordan, bringing tourists to gay bars in Damascus, and Amman, without difficulty. 
“Last year I took them there [to Amman’s gay bar] and we were also invited to a private party with the whole community,” he said.  “These places exist, but they’re not publicized.”
But Moumneh, of Human Rights Watch, said Beirut isn’t as tolerant towards gays as some make it out to be.  Lebanese gays with enough money enjoy a margin of freedom, she said, but it is restricted to men.  Those from working class and poor backgrounds face discrimination and many times are not accepted by their families. 
“Once you leave that bubble it’s a very different situation,” Moumneh said.  “The tourism industry is painting a very rosy picture, but it’s very small and narrow.”
Makso acknowledges Beirut isn’t New York or London, and he warns his clients to avoid certain behaviors.
“I explain to them certain things they shouldn’t do, like showing public affection and taking pictures of political figures,” he said.  “In general there’s no problem, but this is not the West.” 
A little ways down the Mediterranean coast, Tel Aviv’s gay tourism industry is taking off, as well.  The city is internationally known for its gay nightlife and carefree attitude.  Thousands of gay tourists flock to the city every year, said Yaniv Poria, professor in the Department of Hotel and Hospitality at Israel’s Ben Gurion University and an expert on the subject.
Although the country is not immune to homophobia either, as exemplified by the shooting last year at a gay community center in Tel Aviv that left two dead and at least 15 others wounded, Poria said Israel has a very positive image among the global gay and lesbian community. 
“This is considered the hotspot for the Middle East,” he said.  “In no other country, can gays walk publicly and be out.” 
The Tel Aviv Tourism Association recently launched a campaign to market the city to gay communities around the world in a campaign called “Tel Aviv Gay Vibe.” Last year, the city in conjunction with the Israeli Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Association distributed gay-themed maps of the city around Europe. 
Not only are they drawn to the Israeli city’s gay beaches and renowned nightlife, they also come to Israel for its history.
“They’re not coming only to Tel Aviv to have a good time,” Poria said. “They’re coming and they’re interested in seeing the holy places and local sites and learning about the local people.”