Across the front windows of several branches of the Tel Aviv supermarket chain Super Yuda this week, a massive rainbow sign bearing the words “We are proud to be a part of this city!” has popped up. And since the Hebrew word here for proud – “gayim” – is practically identical to the plural word for homosexuals, the sign has a thoroughly unsubtle double meaning.
Yes, it’s Pride Week in Tel Aviv, which means that the town named the world’s best gay city by American Airlines and GayCities.com in 2011 becomes even gayer. More buff, shirtless men, more fluttering rainbow flags, and yes, even more supermarket ad campaigns angling for the thousands of LGBT tourists packing its sundrenched avenues.
Tel Aviv, the hedonistic haven that is perhaps best described as the un-Jerusalem, is gearing up for its biggest and brightest Proud Parade yet on Friday, and that means that in addition to an outpouring of support and warmth for all types of love, dozens of tour groups and travel companies are looking to cash in on the flood of gay tourists who are finding Tel Aviv to be an absolute paradise of pink.
“Almost every tourist who comes here feels that Tel Aviv steals their heart. Most tourists love it, but for the gay tourists, because we have the sun and the beach and it’s really open, they really fall in love,” says Lior Gonen of GaywayTLV, one of dozens of boutique gay-centric tour companies that have cropped up in Israel in recent years.
GayWayTLV creates personalized vacations for gay tourists, zeroing in on gay-friendly hotels and restaurants, building specialized itineraries and offering group tours with tracks ranging from parties to history to lesbian-only.
“What’s important to us is that everything have a gay touch,” Lior says. Nearly everyone on their staff, she says, is part of the gay community and can vouch personally for the services offered. “We just want to give tourists the best vacation in Israel that we can offer.”
GayWay estimates that this year they will work with around 1,000 tourists, the vast majority of whom arrived in Israel this week in time for the rainbow-fest that is Tel Aviv Pride.
According to the Daily Beast, some 100,000 gay tourists are expected to arrive in Tel Aviv this year, drawn by the city’s massive marketing push as a gay-friendly, Sabbath-breaking, free-loving hotspot on the beach. It’s all part of a carefully crafted plan by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who decided several years ago to push Tel Aviv’s image as both pink and peaceful, and was able to secure about a quarter of a million dollars from the city’s tourism budget as part of the plan.
“We are trying to create a model for openness, pluralism and tolerance,” Huldai later told the Associated Press. “Live and let live — this is the city of Tel Aviv.”
Next came Tel Aviv Gay Vibe, a collaborative effort of the city’s tourism board, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism and the country’s chief LGBT institution Agudah. Part website, part viral marketing campaign, Tel Aviv Gay Vibe began openly wooing European and North American gay tourists to the White City with videos and promotions featuring pretty beaches and even prettier people. Free trips to Tel Aviv for gay-skewing bloggers and editorial spreads in magazines like Out came in tandem, and before long, Tel Aviv was scooping up accolades as a gay mecca on the Mediterranean. The American Airlines/GayCities.com award, which came three years into the campaign, sealed the deal: For gays, Tel Aviv was where it was at.
The tourists who flock here, drawn by promises of sunshine and sexy locals, need tips on where to stay and eat, as well as some direction for traveling beyond Tel Aviv and into the rest of Israel. So it should come as no surprise that in the past three years, dozens of ambitious little travel agencies have popped up and are looking to cash in.
Oshry Horn, whose mother and brother are both licensed tour guides, is currently working on earning a degree in computer science, but nevertheless decided he couldn’t wait any longer to launch Gay Camel Tours, a licensed operator of short- and long-term guided tours around the country, specifically designed for gay travelers.
“Our approach is different from other tours,” Horn says. “We’re not a gay bus. We’re more delicate, more classy. We take small groups and put the emphasis on the tours, not the gay parties around them.”
Gay Camel offers two different guided trips to Jerusalem, a Christian package that includes Bethlehem and the Galilee, trips to Masada and the Dead Sea, and inclusive tours that can range from eight to 11 days. He launched his brand two years ago and competes with other similar groups including PrideTours and Outstanding Travel. His tours run about $100 a day and include meals and travel, but not accommodation.
Even for tourists who come to Israel for the first time and never leave Tel Aviv, Horn says that gay-centric tours like his own can offer a specific service. “Gay tourists like to be with other gay tourists. They like to feel comfortable, especially in foreign places,” he says. “Aside from that, we like to add a little gay twist in every tour we design.”