After Eurovision, Tel Aviv aims to sustain ‘tourism miracle’ with 10-year plan

Clifftop zip lines, a floating amusement park, an LGBTQ museum: the White City is looking to build attractions, upgrade infrastructure, reach new tourist markets by 2030

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

An aerial view of Tel Aviv's beachfront. (Courtesy Tel Aviv Yafo Municipality, Barak Brinker)
An aerial view of Tel Aviv's beachfront. (Courtesy Tel Aviv Yafo Municipality, Barak Brinker)

The Tel Aviv municipality earlier this month laid out a 10-year tourism “master plan” with the hope of turning the city into one of the world’s top urban destinations.

The outline calls for upgrading tourism infrastructure, building new attractions and better outreach to certain audiences.

The release of the ambitious, 66-page plan follows a record year for Israeli tourism — an all-time high number of 4.9 million visitors entered the country in 2019. Ten airlines added flights to Israel, leading to a total of 140 airlines flying to Tel Aviv. Ben-Gurion International Airport saw 24 million international entries in 2019, an increase of 1.6 million over the previous year.

Tel Aviv in 2019 hosted the mega-popular Eurovision Song Contest, which was the largest event ever held in the city, the municipality said.

“In the past few years, we have been witnessing a tourism miracle. Tel Aviv-Yafo used to be a small city that only few tourists visited. It remains a small city, but one whose name is now recognized globally and many people want to experience,” Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said in a statement. “This Master Plan aims to sustain the tourism boom, manage it prudently and plan wisely for the future. Tourism in Tel Aviv-Yafo is a highly important economic engine for the city and the entire metropolitan area.”

The so-called master plan envisions Tel Aviv’s tourism industry resting on three main pillars — the old port of Jaffa, which the city called its “main attraction,” modern Tel Aviv’s urban vitality, and the beach.

Fisherman cast their rods in the port of Jaffa, July 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The plan’s origins are in the “City Vision” strategic plan released by the city in 2017, which put tourism on equal footing among the municipality’s priorities with other issues, including education and the local economy.

In recent years tourism to Tel Aviv, and Israel in general, has become a more highly prized economic resource, and the government has invested heavily in tourism infrastructure, including the airport, hotels, and in the Expo Tel Aviv convention center.

Tel Aviv’s new plan highlighted tourism data from 2018, which found that 46 percent of visitors were Christians and 24% Jews. The leading point of origin was France, accounting for 15% of visitors, followed by the US, with 12%. The most popular site was Old Jaffa, with 70% of guests visiting the ancient city.

Tourists were most satisfied with the beaches, their personal security and the warm reception provided by locals, and were least satisfied with costs, taxis, information in their own languages and cleanliness.

The city aims to address the high prices, public transportation woes, cleanliness issues, lack of accommodations and closures on Shabbat, the report said.

The municipality last year started a Shabbat bus service, dubbed “We move on weekends,” that drew protests from ultra-Orthodox Israelis but proved overwhelmingly popular with the secular public.

An aerial view of Tel Aviv’s beachfront. (Courtesy/Tel Aviv Yafo Municipality, Barak Brinker)

Hotels are one of the main issues highlighted in the city’s tourism plan.

The average price per night at a Tel Aviv hotel is $210; they have a high occupancy rate, and are mostly located in a small part of the city near the beach. The city estimates that it will need almost twice as many hotel rooms by 2030, an increase of around 7,000-10,000 new rooms.

Tel Aviv last year added 783 hotel rooms, with the current total standing at 11,170 rooms.

The city plans to encourage the construction of new hotels by expediting permits and plans, pushing for converting office buildings into hotels, and better regulating the apartment rental market.

There are over 17,000 rooms available for short-term rental on Airbnb. The rate of apartment rentals to hotel rooms is one of the highest of any city worldwide, and the rooms are some of the most expensive for the market in any country. The apartment rental market is largely unregulated, the report notes.

Other weak points in the city’s tourism industry include a lack of “must-see” destinations and attractions that are open at night.

Illustrative: an ultra-Orthodox Jewish couple enjoys a sunny afternoon at the Tel Aviv port, February 5, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The city is looking to boost the number of tourists coming by aiming at a few potential markets:

  • Hosting large international gatherings, including conferences, trade shows and exhibitions.
  • Attracting more tourists from China. In 2018, China for the first time became one of the top 10 sources of tourists to Tel Aviv.
  • Appealing to Muslim and Arab tourists. The city has seen an increase in visitors from Arab Israeli communities and the West Bank, and believes it can attract others from both Western countries and other Middle Eastern countries, as tensions with some of Israel’s neighbors ease.
  • Drawing more older visitors, which the municipality describes as “gray hair tourism” and the “senior citizen niche.” Tel Aviv was listed as an “age-friendly” city by the World Health Organization in 2018.
  • And finally, getting more Jews to visit. The municipality plans on improving its museums and other Jewish heritage sites, and is considering opening a museum that “highlights the accomplishments of the Jewish people”

Some of the potential planned attractions include a 24-hour beach, a zip line stretching from the top of a cliff to the sea, a jogging course over water, a floating amusement park, and promoting scuba diving at a nearby coral reserve.

The municipality is also weighing opening an LGBTQ museum, extending museum hours, making parking and buses more English-friendly, and offering free city tours.

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