‘Tel Aviv not only has the beach and the sun, but it is a dynamic 24-hour city.’ (Photo: Ministry of Tourism)Israelis have been afraid to say it out loud so as not to incur bad luck, but it’s getting impossible to ignore. Walk down any main street in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the mix of faces and languages makes it clear – tourism to Israel is staging a comeback.

The cautious optimism with which the tourism industry and the general public is greeting the growing numbers is understandable, given the difficult years they’ve recently experienced. Following a record number of tourists in the summer of 2000, the subsequent drop and virtual disappearance of foreign visitors was sharp and traumatic. Israelis are acutely aware of how fragile an upturn can be, and how easily reversed. But the statistics for 2005 are undeniable.

Between January to October of this year there were 1,589,700 foreign visitors to Israel, a 27 percent increase over the same period last year.

“We are having a peak season,” Israel Hotel Association director-general Eli Ziv, told ISRAEL21c.

Announcing the figures earlier this month, Tourism Minister Avraham Hirschson, declared that “this increase once again shows that there is a momentum in tourism, and it indicates how important tourism is for the growth of the Israeli economy.”

His stated goal is to reach two million foreign tourists for this year, and three million for 2006.

The encouraging upward trend actually began to happen gradually in 2003 and 2004, after hitting rock bottom during the preceding year. But it clearly gathered steam in 2005 – in addition to Christian pilgrimage tourism, Diaspora ‘solidarity’ visits, and vacationing French Jews with close ties to Israel, what the industry calls “conventional tourists” are once again venturing to Israel.

For the first time, new guided tours from the United States are being organized – largely the result of the softening of a State Department warning against traveling to Israel. Eastern Europeans are showing interest in beach vacations in Eilat.

Natan Uriely, head of the department of hotel and tourism management at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev predicts that if the security situation stabilizes further, “we can expect a wave of new visitors from emerging segments of the tourism market like Eastern Europe and the Far East.”

He praised the Tourism Ministry’s recent efforts – under Hirschson’s leadership – to encourage the trend with a strategic three-pronged approach to promoting foreign tourism. The first strategy is maximizing the most traditional forms of travel to Israel, holy land visits by Christians and heritage trips by individual Jews and Jewish organizations, stays which tend to be focused on Jerusalem and the Galilee area.

The second emphasis is strengthening the seasonal beach tourism in Eilat, which Uriely believes will be further increased in the future by some form of legal gambling in the area. Casinos in Eilat, he says are “just a matter of time.”

The third and least traditional direction the ministry is taking is the marketing of Tel Aviv as a Mediterranean urban playground. While there will always be a reliable stream of traffic to the biblical and historic locations – and Europeans will always seek beach hotels and warm weather in the wintertime, the Tel Aviv effort is an attempt to acquaint tourists with a different side of Israel.

“Tel Aviv not only has the beach and the sun, but it is a dynamic 24-hour city. It is a city that represents the modern and secular and financially strong Israel,” said Ziv, who, in additional to his national role, serves as the head of the Tel Aviv Hoteliers Association. “The Tel Aviv infrastructure has dramatically improved – older neighborhoods like Rothschild Boulevard and Neve Tzedek were refurbished and the Tel Aviv port has become a center of nightlife. And we are reaping the rewards.”

Ziv recently unveiled the launch of a revolutionary new campaign specifically to attract gay and lesbian tourists to his city, developed at the initiative of, and in cooperation with, the city’s gay and lesbian advocacy groups.

“The effort was born after the Tel Aviv homosexual community came to us, and explained that Tel Aviv as a tourism product was highly attractive to the gay market, which is an incredible group of travel consumers eager to go to destinations that are friendly to their community,” Ziv said. “We want to highlight the fact that the rich culture and nightlife of Tel Aviv is open to everyone.”

Indeed, Israel is the only country in the Middle East where homosexuality between consenting adults in private is neither illegal nor persecuted by the authorities, and Tel Aviv has the most gay-friendly culture in the region.

Recently, the city held its seventh annual Gay Pride parade, which drew over 100,000 revelers, complete with music, balloons and rainbow flags. The city’s dance club culture is active, dynamic and never stops – and even those clubs which are not specifically designed for gays are receptive to the community.

“It’s not that it’s so much fun to be gay in Tel Aviv as much as its simply fun to be in Tel Aviv. Freedom in this city is everyone’s right,” explained openly gay journalist, Avner Bernheimer, writing in Yediot Aharonot, the country’s highest circulation newspaper.

“Tel Aviv is really too small to develop a ‘gay ghetto’ and therefore the whole town is like one big homeland… nearly every coffee show, club, bar, beach or street is ‘gay friendly,'” said Bernheimer concluding, “In Tel Aviv is a place in which I feel like I’m in the majority, even if I’m in the minority.”

Ziv said that he plans to work together with the gay and lesbian community and with travel agents overseas that specialize in gay tourism to develop Tel Aviv packages.

In the works is a website devoted to Tel Aviv nightlife, which will be a cooperative effort between the gay and lesbian organizations in the city and the hotel association, where potential visitors can find information on activities and the clubs and restaurants and cultural events of the moment. Initially, he plans to target Germany, Great Britain and Holland, “places in which we are finding a great deal of openness and enthusiasm.”

Ideally, he would like to move the World Pride Festival scheduled for August 2006 to Tel Aviv, from its scheduled location of Jerusalem. Originally, it was supposed to take place in August 2005, but it was postponed due to the disengagement from Gaza, which required the presence of most Israeli police forces and would have left the parade with little to no security.

“I would have loved to have it in Tel Aviv, at the center of a roster of events for the international gay community,” he says, fearing that the more conservative Jerusalem population and its Orthodox mayor will force a far more low-key event if it is held in the capital. “We’ll see what happens – unfortunately, relocating it may be impossible at this juncture.”

Both Ziv and Uriely praised the businesslike approach of Hirschson who, they said has brought “great energy” and an “openness to new ways of doing things to the office, including his willingness to move forward with the unconventional Tel Aviv initiative.”

Managing the tourism infrastructure in a volatile location like Israel is not an easy task, either for the private or the public sector, Uriely stressed.

“On one hand, the potential for tourism is simply huge – it’s an ideal destination – we’ve got sites you can’t see anywhere else and a small country where you can have so many different kinds of experiences in a short time,” he said. “And then, on the other hand, there is the security issue. That is a very complex situation that demands imagination and flexibility. We’ve learned a lot over the last few years. The industry did very well, increasing the number of internal Israeli tourists to compensate in part for the drop in international tourists, which helped keep the infrastructure intact.”

But will it be enough infrastructure if things continue to improve? Hirschson is optimistic enough to be worried that Israel might not be able to accommodate everyone who wants to visit. He warned earlier this month that if indeed, three million tourists come to Israel in 2006, the country could face a serious shortage of hotel rooms.

He also expressed concerns about filling the jobs that would open up in the industry under such circumstances. With high unemployment having made tourism a problematic career choice for several years, the industry could potentially have to scramble to find qualified workers.

“These are problems that would be wonderful to complain about,” said Uriely.