Rise in gay tourism stirs unease in Israel

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

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    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.
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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."

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.

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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.

According to Ministry of Tourism statistics, some 44 percent of the 2.3 million tourists who came to Israel last year were religious Christians of different denominations. Highlighting "gay tourism," says Mr. Katz, could easily unsettle some of the many visitors coming to experience the "land of the Bible."

"Dealing with gay tourism has to be done in an intelligent and sensitive way," says Yaniv Poria, a professor in the department of hotel and tourism management at Ben Gurion University in the Negev region and an expert on the subject. "It is wanted – it's just tricky. Like so many things in Israel."

Part of Israeli's appeal to the gay market, says Roth, is the perception that it's a very liberal, open-minded country. Sodomy was decriminalized by the Supreme Court 20 years ago; there are equal opportunity laws protecting workers against discrimination based on sexual orientation; gays can openly serve in the army, inherit their spouse's property, and be registered by the government as married. As of this year, gay Israeli couples are also allowed to adopt children.

But in contrast, Israel also has a history of intolerance toward the sector. In Jerusalem, the small annual gay pride parade has to be protected by hundreds of police. Last year, the 2,000 marchers in Jerusalem were threatened and stoned by ultra-Orthodox protesters.

Also last year, the Tourism Ministry was forced to stop its support for a campaign to promote gay tourism after details were published in the local media. At the time, dozens of religious members of parliament threatened to bring down the government over the campaign, saying such images as one of two young men in skullcaps about to kiss near Jerusalem's Mount of Olives were offensive.

"This is a delusional campaign for a minority with a normative defect," Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai, from the ultrareligious Shas Party, told reporters. "Those who fail to recognize Jerusalem's holiness should stay away from it."

The government's solution to such sentiment has led them to take their support for gay tourism into the closet, so to speak. "[Like] other religious countries trying to attract gay tourism, like Spain, the government has turned over marketing to the local level or taken it underground," says Poria.

What this means, he explains, is that cities are free to market themselves as they see fit, while the country, officially, continues to market a far more traditional set of attractions.

Meanwhile, any official marketing to the gay community is done in a subtle, even unconventional way. "You will not find [Israeli Foreign Minister] Zippi Livni talking about this – but you will see promotional spots for such tourism, supported by the ministry, but not attributed to them, on, say YouTube," says Poria.

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