Tel Aviv eyes tourism boon with 'amazing' Eurovision week

Jonah Mandel
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Tel Aviv, Israel's economic and cultural centre, likes to boast of its beaches, vibrant nightlife, ancient quarters and rich culinary and cultural scene

Eurovision hasn't declared its winner yet but tourists in Israel for the competition were declaring host Tel Aviv "amazing", with officials hoping to capitalise on the momentum for future events.

On Monday, just a day before the first round of semi-finals began in a nearby convention centre, downtown Tel Aviv was bustling with a Eurovision vibe.

On the elegant Rothschild Boulevard, volunteers with purple t-shirts and matching hats were providing Eurovision tourists with booklets and information about the city and competition venues.

A short distance away, a group was gathering for a free walking tour of the city's LGBT landmarks, operated by Sandeman which had broadened its normal Tel Aviv repertoire for Eurovision week.

On the sandy beach below the Hilton hotel, Laszlo Lukacs was enjoying the afternoon sun and breeze on a recliner.

To Lukacs, a Zurich-based Hungarian in software sales, the Israeli venue was an interesting twist in the Eurovision plot.

"It's super exciting for us Europeans to come here," said Lukacs, who has followed Eurovision to each host country for the past six years.

"Is this Europe, talking about Eurovision, is it the Middle East, all these different religions mixing here," he said.

While Tel Aviv was expensive, Lukacs said its residents were "super helpful so far and very nice, very friendly people."

"So far it's a very positive and interesting experience," he added.

Stretching eastward from the Mediterranean, Israel's economic and cultural centre likes to boast of its beaches, vibrant nightlife, ancient quarters and rich culinary and cultural scene.

Tel Aviv's pluralistic nature -- it hosts the largest Gay Pride event in the region -- stands in contrast not only to neighbouring Arab states but even other Israeli cities such as Jerusalem.

While Israel's 2018 Eurovision victory with Netta Barzilai's "Toy" meant the Jewish state would host the next year, Tel Aviv was not handed the boon on a silver platter.

Israeli politicians initially insisted that Jerusalem host the event, backing down only after objections by ultra-Orthodox politicians over the finals being held close to the Jewish Sabbath.

Pressures by pro-Palestinian activists and artists to boycott the Israeli event loomed in the background, and tensions with Gaza, culminating in a flareup earlier this month affecting southern Israel, threatened to disrupt the event.

- 'Like a wedding' -

Eytan Schwartz, CEO of Tel Aviv Global who was tasked with preparing the city for Eurovision tourists, said hundreds of people had been working around the clock for nine month for the event.

"We prepared for this like a wedding," he said on the backdrop of a Eurovision banner outside the municipality building, which at nights illuminates its front with the flags of countries participating in the Eurovision.

This year 41 nations are competing, with Dutch singer Duncan Laurence favourite to win according to a survey of bookmakers by independent fan website Eurovision World.

It remained unclear whether Madonna will perform at the Saturday final, after Israel's public broadcaster KAN said it was in negotiations with the US icon.

Preparing for the competition included training hotel staff, taxi and bus drivers, setting up a small army of volunteers and preparing accessible information for visitors, Schwartz said.

While the 10,000 tourists in town for Eurovision do not represent a large quantity for a major European city, in small Tel Aviv -- with under half a million residents -- you "feel them all around the city."

A beachside Eurovision Village has been set up for live performances, with booths selling food and merchandise, as well as the Eurovision exhibitions and installations.

For Tel Aviv, the Eurovision was "a platform to examine all our challenges as a small city and take us up a level as far as our abilities to absorb tourists," Schwartz said.

The unusual international exposure could also help position Tel Aviv as a venue for conferences and even sports events, he added.

The heavy media presence and global attention on the city "is a gift that Netta gave us," Schwartz said.

At the Eurovision Village, visitor Chris Walker said the competition -- wed with the city known for its party scene -- would make "an unmissable event."

"Everyone's so friendly, everybody's willing to help you any chance they can," the Scotland native said over blaring speakers.

Travelling with Walker, Daniel said he'd been following Eurovision from Chile for the past seven years.

"This year I decided -- why not go to Tel Aviv, which is a city I've always wanted to visit, so here I am, waiting for the show to start," he said, praising the warm weather and people.

"Everyone speaks English and everyone is nice and so far it's been really amazing," he said.