Tel Aviv Woos Tourists, but Hebrew’s a Hurdle

The White City aims to be a truly global one, but lack of information in English leaves some visitors baffled.

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Capital of Cool, top-ten beach city, world’s best gay tourism spot – these are just a few of the international accolades Tel Aviv has won in recent years. But despite the city’s efforts to elevate its status to that of a truly global metropolis, a stroll along Tel Aviv’s beach promenade reveals that for tourists who don’t read Hebrew, getting around and accessing services is no piece of cake.

Part of the vision of the municipality’s Tel Aviv Global & Tourism initiative, launched in 2010, is to make Tel Aviv one of the world’s 20 leading cities. Part of this process is improving accessibility to tourists. One recent initiative to this end was the installation of free WiFi citywide last September. There are some 75 hot spots in place so far, out of an expected total of 80. These have been placed in many areas popular with tourists, roughly 1 million of whom visited in 2013, according to the municipality’s rough estimates.

But an initial log-in page with instructions and terms of use in Hebrew leaves many tourists baffled. Take Fred, 28, and Kristina, 27, on holiday in Israel from the Czech Republic and Slovakia for the first time. They read about Tel Aviv’s free Wifi before they arrived, but when they got to a “Free_TLV” hot spot, they were stumped at the Hebrew log-on hurdle. They didn’t see that there was a button for an English log-on page at the top of their smartphone screen in the bright Tel Aviv sunshine.

“We just clicked on the big red arrow [on the Hebrew screen], we didn’t know what we had agreed to,” says Fred. In any case, Kristina adds, “We are used to things here being only in Hebrew and confusing.”

The couple are unusual in that they actually were aware of the service. Most of the tourists Haaretz spoke to didn’t know it was available. This is despite the fact that hot spots are sign-posted, and that the municipality has advertised the service in the local press and with local hotels. When they did try to log on, many, like Fred and Kristina, were also stumped at the Hebrew.

“When you connect to the free wireless network in the city, the first language is Hebrew – after all, Tel Aviv is the first Hebrew city,” a municipality spokesperson said.

Lacking Hebrew skills can also prove a stumbling block on public transport, with no English information available on bus stands or on buses. The Bernds, a German family from Switzerland, have visited Israel three times before, but they still find Tel Aviv’s buses a challenge. “We got to know some bus lines, but it’s confusing to use others,” Kathrin says. “It’s easy to recognize one or two numbers, but otherwise not reading the Hebrew makes it impossible.”

Klaus Von Weschptennig, 55, and his partner, Walter, 75, from Germany, who have had similar problems on Tel Aviv’s bus network, suggest the municipality provide visitors with a transport plan in English. The pair add that they have also found it difficult to rent a bike through the city’s Tel-O-Fun network, another element of the Tel Aviv Global & Tourism initiative, even though the service is available in English.

“We couldn’t understand how to use it,” says Walter, as he clicks through to the English-language screen on the Tel-O-Fun portal. “It could be easier.” But, they insist, “The city is wonderful, and great for gay tourists.”

Further up the promenade, Isaac and Simmi, from New York and Miami respectively, are also having problems trying to rent a Tel-O-Fun bike for the first time. Both have visited Israel many times before, and speak and read some Hebrew, and Isaac’s parents are Israeli. Still, it takes them three tries to rent a bike, as the process times out while they are filling in the requested information. Isaac sums up the experience: “There are lots of screens, and too much information. And the pricing is unclear.”

“The municipality cannot control what Egged and Dan (bus companies) do on their buses,” the spokesperson said, adding that the city has not received complaints from tourists on the matter. “In the public transportation that we ‘control,’ as an example the Tel-O-Fun bike sharing system, everything is in English.”

For those who forgo public transport and rent a car, not reading Hebrew can also land them in hot water. Soren and Solveig Eriksen from Denmark always rent a car on their frequent visits to Israel. But without reading Hebrew, they have a hard time finding out where and when they can park. “We arrived at 2 A.M. this morning, and we had to ask in a bar if we could park outside on the street, and until what hour we could leave our car in the morning,” says Soren. “And then when we got to our host’s apartment, they told us we were wrong, and that our car might be towed away!” Luckily for them, it wasn’t.

“The municipality is aware of the fact that the parking signs are in Hebrew,” the spokesperson said, adding that the city has taken various steps to help tourists overcome the hurdle. City officials are working on an English pamphlet explaining parking that will be distributed to rental companies, and soon tourists will be able buy parking tickets online with an international credit card. Plus, the municipality’s website has information in English on public transport and parking regulations, the spokesperson adds, and tourists can always email or phone the municipality for information in English.

For Lei Tracy, who is visiting from China to celebrate her 30th birthday, information in English is basic for a global city. “Its all in Hebrew here,” she says. “Clearer information will give tourists a better impression of this beautiful place.”

Enjoying the WiFi in sunny Rothschild Street. Credit: Kfir Sivan

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