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Rise in gay tourism stirs unease in Israel

So-called 'pink dollars' are flowing into the economy, but may deter traditional pilgrims.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 2008

Tourist destination: The beach in Tel Aviv, which is enjoyed by diverse communities from Israel and abroad, offers speciality sections for sunbathers with different religious and social needs.

Dan Balilty/AP

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Tel Aviv

There is something incongruous about the stretch of beach just under the Hilton Hotel's high perch. For there, below the bluff, are two so-called "specialty beaches."

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The Hassidic beach, surrounded by an eight-foot concrete wall, features a polite sign at its entrance: Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays are women's bathing days, it announces. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays belong to men.

It's the municipality's solution to the ultra-orthodox dilemma of how to body surf without breaking the halachic, Jewish law, prohibition on unmarried members of the opposite sex seeing one another in immodest dress.

At the beach directly adjacent to the walled compound, every day is men's bathing day. This is the unofficial gay beach.

Tel Aviv, with its warm Mediterranean weather, trendy cosmopolitan feel, and lively nightlife, has, over the past few years, become a hot destination for gay travelers.

But this is also a country where there is no separation between religion and state, and in which the majority of tourists come here for some form of religious experience – which all leads to a rather ambivalent official attitude toward the phenomenon.

According to Thomas Roth, president of Community Marketing Inc., a San Francisco-based gay market research firm, gay travelers make up 10 percent or more of the travel industry, spending tens of billions of dollars yearly. They are a valuable niche market, he points out, with higher than average disposable income, and a typically strong interest in both shopping and culture.

While no research has been conducted on gay tourism to Israel specifically, says Mr. Roth, who just returned from his own visit to the country, "…we do know from focus groups and anecdotal conversations with travelers that the destination is growing in appeal."

Shai Doitsh, head of the gay tourism department at Agudah, Israel's Association of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexuals, and Transgenders, says that thousands of gay tourists – both independent and groups – have come to Israel this year, infusing the economy with millions of so-called "pink dollars." Five years ago, the numbers were in the hundreds. A decade ago there was virtually no market at all, he says.

But David Katz, a travel agent with Sar-El Tours in Jerusalem, whose main clients are religious pilgrims, points out that evangelical Christians make up the single largest group of tourists to the country, followed by Jewish interest tourists.

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