Last summer, Scott Perlmutter, a 44-year-old gay TV executive from Los Angeles, went on a 10-day vacation to Mykonos—a tiny, gay-friendly island off the coast of Greece. Among the dizzying array of skimpy Speedos, ridiculously fit men, and breathtaking sunsets, Perlmutter was so high on life, he had to look down to see heaven.
Like many of his gay friends, Perlmutter is a travel fanatic. His yearly trips are carefully planned months in advance and include a mixture of fun and culture. In just the last few years, he’s been to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Amsterdam, and Berlin. He’s even gone on a lavish gay cruise to Italy.
But when his trendy (and, more relevantly, non-Jewish) friends suggested Tel Aviv as their next destination, Perlmutter thought they were a bit meshugah—out of their minds.
“Last time I was in Israel, back in the ‘80s, the airport was a field with some planes on it,” says Perlmutter. “There was barely a tarmac.”
He was shocked to discover that not only has the city’s airport undergone a billion-dollar facelift (Ben-Gurion was recently named the third-best airport in the Middle East, after Dubai and Abu Dhabi, by the Airport Service Quality Awards, the Oscars of the airport industry) but Tel Aviv itself was unrecognizable.
“It was incredible,” says Perlmutter. “It was like Vegas on steroids.”
Perlmutter and his friends spent the entire 10-day trip in Tel Aviv, never leaving the city limits. They went to the gay beach, partied at gay bars and nightclubs, even stayed at a gay hotel, one of several that have popped up around the city in recent years. But perhaps the biggest draw, according to Perlmutter, was the never-ending supply of good-looking men.
“My neck almost twisted off from looking at them,” Perlmutter says, laughing. “I had a $500 phone bill from all the pictures of hot men I sent to my friends back home.”
In the last three years, Tel Aviv has become the new “it” place among gay tourists. The city estimates more than 50,000 LGBT travelers will make their way to Tel Aviv this year—and that number is expected to double in 2014.
A report by the Gay European Tourist Association, which came out in October, shows gay Europeans spend up to $65 billion each year on travel. Add to that the $62 billion gay Americans spend on their vacations annually, and it’s no wonder Tel Aviv is ecstatic about its new pink-city status.
But unlike, say, Amsterdam or Berlin, which have developed into gay hotspots naturally over decades, Tel Aviv’s coming out was a much quicker and more calculated affair.
“Israeli men are our biggest natural resource when it comes to gay tourism.”
Four years ago, the straight mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, realized his city had all the necessary ingredients to become a leading gay tourist destination: warm weather, pristine beaches, a vibrant nightlife, a thriving gay community, and some of the most beautiful men on the planet. The problem was, Tel Aviv wasn’t known as a gay town.
A study commissioned by the mayor’s office showed gay tourists were more inclined to go to cities like Barcelona or Berlin rather than Israel, a country they associated with religion and war. So the mayor had an idea: brand Tel Aviv as its own separate entity.
“We knew that people who had been to Tel Aviv loved it,” says Yaniv Waizman, the mayor’s adviser on gay community affairs. “So we made a switch. We no longer talked about Israel, but Tel Aviv.”
Together with the mayor, Waizman was able to secure grants from both the Israeli Tourism Ministry and the Israel Hotel Association. The mayor‘s office allocated a third of its own tourism budget (about $100,000) for the project. “We now spend a quarter of a million dollars a year on gay tourism, a fortune by Israeli standards,” says Waizman.
The first thing they did was send well-known (and good-looking) Israeli performers to gay-pride events in major cities around the world. They also placed sexy ads in major gay rags across Europe and America, including Out and The Advocate. They even reached out to celebrity bloggers, like Perez Hilton, with a hard-to-resist offer: a free trip to Tel Aviv, all expenses paid, in return for a little publicity.
The results were nothing less than spectacular. Soon, gay men from all over the world were flocking to Tel Aviv by the thousands, swiping their credit cards all over town, and breathing new life into the city’s economy.
In 2011, barely three years into the campaign, a survey by American Airlines and Gaycities.com, named Tel Aviv the gayest city in the world, beating out New York and Berlin by a landslide. Mayor Huldai was hailed as a visionary. “We got a call from the mayor of Milan recently asking us how we did it,“ says Huldai with a smile. “Hotels in Tel Aviv are now asking for more rainbow flags because they are filled with gay tourists.”
Israeli travel agencies say they too are feeling the surge. “Last year we sold about 300 gay tours,” says Israel Rodrigue, manager at Ofakim, Israel’s biggest travel agency. “This year we’re up to 500. We’re hoping to double that next year.”
In an effort to keep the momentum going, Ofakim is now coming out with a glossy new coffee-table book called The Israelis, a collection of male portraits by one of Israel’s most celebrated photographers, Ronen Akerman. The velvet-covered book features 42 hunky men in different locations around the country. The company plans to distribute the book at international tourism expos around the world.
“Israeli men are our biggest natural resource when it comes to gay tourism,” says Rodrigue. “We have a nice mixture of all different ethnicities, which makes for a good-looking combo.”
According to Mayor Huldai, Tel Aviv’s ability to attract gay tourists is more than just about eye candy. “You could spend millions on sleek advertising campaigns, but if the city’s population isn’t open-minded, gay people won’t come,” he explains.
It’s easy to understand why gay tourists might feel at home in Tel Aviv. Walk down the city’s biggest avenue, Rothschild Boulevard, on any given Friday and you’ll see dozens of gay couples holding hands, not to mention a steady stream of same-sex couples pushing baby strollers.
“We call it our ‘gayby boom,’ ” says Avner Bernheimer, the creator of one of Israel’s most popular TV shows, Ima Veh’Abaz (Mom and Dads), about a gay couple raising a child with a single woman. Bernheimer, who based the show on his own real-life story, said it was the easiest sale he ever made. The cable network approved his pitch in less than five minutes.
Unlike other gay-friendly cities such as New York and Los Angeles, where gays live in so-called gay ghettos like Chelsea and West Hollywood, there is no specific gay neighborhood in Tel Aviv. “Every café and restaurant here is gay-friendly,” says Bernheimer. And that, according to him, breeds acceptance. “Israel is a small country where everyone knows everyone. Everybody knows someone who’s gay, whether it’s your son, your neighbor’s cousin, or your best friend’s lesbian daughter.”
His show stars three of Israel’s most famous actors, including Yehuda Levi, dubbed the Israeli Brad Pitt. Levi is also the star of Yossi and Jagger, a film about a love affair between two male Israel Defense Forces soldiers, and one of Israel’s biggest global box-office hits. And although Levi is not gay, one could argue his face has done more for Israeli gay tourism than any glitzy ad campaign.
“I specifically took on those roles knowing they had an added value,” says Levi. “I knew that if I did my job well, it would help legitimize the alternative family in Israeli society.“ The show, which airs on the cable channel Hot, has become a ratings hit, beating out heavy hitters such as X Factor and Modern Family.
The explosion in gay tourism in Tel Aviv is not without controversy. Critics within the gay community in Israel say it coincides with a sharp rise in new HIV infections and drug use. According to the Israel AIDS Task Force, the number of HIV cases has jumped 30 percent since 2007, right before the tourists began arriving in droves.
“Tel Aviv is the new Thailand,” says Bernheimer. “I have friends who abstain from sex during pride month, when all the tourists are here. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t like sex, and I have nothing against tourism, but this is mainly sex tourism. People come here to have sex and do drugs. We’re now part of the circuit-party franchise,” he says referring to the gay version of a rave. “We’ve become the mattress of the world.”
But the leading AIDS organization in Israel is reluctant to make that connection. “People are less careful today because of the new medications,” says Dr. Yuval Livnat, executive manager of Israel AIDS Task Force. “AIDS is no longer a death sentence like it used to be, and people are taking more chances. It‘s a trend we’re seeing all over the world.”
HIV cases in Israel are still relatively low compared with other places. Last year, Israel recorded 454 new cases of HIV, of which 148 were cases of men who have sex with men. That’s compared with 2,225 new cases in 2011 in New York City alone.
Mayor Huldai believes gay tourists have done nothing but good for his city, and not just financially. “Tel Aviv has always been a city where everyone is welcome. Whether you’re religious or gay, Jewish or non-Jewish,” he says. “The gay community is a big part of what makes us special.”
And Perlmutter, the TV executive, says his experience in Tel Aviv made other cities pale in comparison. "It was like being in Montreal, Manhattan, and London all at once, but with more energy and style.