When Netta Barzilai won this year’s Eurovision song contest, she cried out, “Next year in Jerusalem.” The next day, others began calling out that Tel Aviv was the more appropriate venue for the popular European competition. Not only technical discussions about holding it but also political discussions arose over the Israeli capital’s place on the international stage. At one point, it seemed the Eurovision contest in Israel would be canceled like the Israel-Argentina soccer friendly.
In the end, the European Broadcast Union decided to hold the Eurovision next May in Tel Aviv. It is slated to be the largest international event Israel has ever hosted. Hosting the competition bears enormous potential for tourism as well as huge economic risks, if revenue doesn’t match production costs.
Politics: Will everyone cooperate?
In the initial discussions about producing the Eurovision in Israel, Culture Minister Miri Regev demanded the Eurovision budget be managed through the budget for celebrating Israel’s 70th anniversary, which is controlled by her ministry. She also declared that the Eurovision must be in Jerusalem, or else it would be better not to take place in Israel at all. At a certain stage, after she got into a confrontation with Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, who demanded that he retain authority over Eurovision-related issues, the two sides agreed to establish a steering committee headed by the directors general of both ministries. However, after it turned out that such a step meant direct political involvement in Eurovision, the steering committee idea was shelved. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took Regev off the Eurovision file. Kara then became the one to manage directly, as Netanyahu’s representative, the correspondence with the broadcast union.
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Producing such an event requires coordination among many government ministries. The communications, finance, tourism and public security meetings are to set up soon an interministerial committee to prepare for the Eurovision, including security issues. All sides agreed that the Kan broadcasting corporation will have full independence regarding content.
One of the main difficulties about approving the contest for Israel involved a list of European Broadcast Union demands submitted to Netanyahu. The standard document is sent to all host countries. The government was required to commit to allowing entry to all who ask, without regard to religion, race, gender or political opinion. The government in recent years has barred BDS activists from Israel, so it perceived the demand as problematic. Another issue involved a government commitment to allow rehearsals for the contest on Shabbat.
Kara responded to the union in a letter in which he accepted its positions, subject to Israeli law. Thus, he promised to allow rehearsals on the Sabbath, subject to Israeli regulations about work permits on the Sabbath. The law gives a permanent work permit to about 500 Kan employees, but producing the Eurovision will require additional workers. Kara promised to allow work permits as needed. Regarding the participation of foreign guests, it was agreed to permit entry according to Israeli law and subject to security demands. On the face of it, Israeli law allows the denial of entry to BDS activists.
A source familiar with the matter said: “The government acted wisely when it didn’t insist on holding the competition in Jerusalem. It’s the right way to act, and Kara is praiseworthy for this.”
Tel Aviv: Profiting off sideshows
Once Barzilai won, some people backed Tel Aviv, which is considered young, secular and a rising tourist attraction among Europeans, to host the event. Professional observers agreed that Tel Aviv is better suited to host a large number of people and to hold an array of side events.
Tel Aviv municipal officials started preparing for an immediate tender right after winning, adding about 25 million shekels ($7 million) to its budget. This amount is expected to grow as adjustments are made closer to the event.
The municipality will fund the arenas that will hold the three events to be broadcast live worldwide – the two semifinals and the final slated for the Tel Aviv Convention Center. Moreover, it will hold other events including the opening ceremony and a red-carpet event at the Tel Aviv Art Museum; a ceremony in which Portugal hands over the keys of the competition to Israel and the draw for the semifinals at the historic former city hall on Bialik Street.
It will also build a village for the Eurovision, the Euro Village in the Charles Clore Park. The village will be open to the public for 10 days and will feature performances by former and current stars of the competition, as well as broadcasts of the semifinals and final. Municipal officials expect about 20,000 tourists from abroad and about 100 million shekels in direct revenue for the city.
What’s in it for Netanya and Herzliya?
Before worrying about tourists, accommodations have to be made for all delegation members arriving in Israel. The official demand is to set aside no less than 3,000 rooms for a two-week period, although this number is expected to drop. A conservative estimate is that the costs of the room will be over 6 million euros just to host the official representatives and accompanying media.
Eli Ziv, the director general of the Tel Aviv Hotel Association, believes that thousands more will come besides the representatives set to come, and many of them will end up in other cities like Herzliya and Netanya. Ziv added, “May is a business month in Tel Aviv when occupancy rates are at their highest for the year.”
Anyone trying to order rooms privately for Eurovision has already encountered rising prices for the weekend of May 17-19. A random check of prices on booking.com showed that the Crown Plaza and Carlton Tel Aviv are asking $809 and $911, respectively, for two nights that weekend. The weekend after costs just $524 and $763 for two nights at the respective hotels.
Hotel industry sources say that the prices are expected to climb even higher, and the biggest benefactors are expected to be Airbnb owners. There are approximately 9,000 available rooms for short-term rentals, and they are expected to be fully occupied.
Getting tough at the border
Besides preparing for the tens of thousands of tourists who will arrive for the semifinals and finals, there is significant tourist potential for the Euro Village that the city is to set up. Just a day after Barzilai’s victory, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said that his ministry would launch a campaign in Europe inviting tourists to visit Israel.
“The Eurovision has an impact on two points in time – both during the run-up to the event next year, and during it,” said Levin. “There is no doubt that the victory generated interest in Israel.” Despite this, the Tourism Ministry has been in no hurry to comment how it expects to draw tourists to the event or what role it will play in the preparations since the announcement that the contest would be held in Tel Aviv and not in Jerusalem.
Tel Aviv municipal officials get the enormous potential. Eitan Schwartz, director general of the municipality’s City, World and Tourism Administration, said that a task force has been established, the goal being to look at how the city prepares for tourists and “leverages this event for additional benefits.”
Booking.com reported an immediate spike in reservations for accommodations in Tel Aviv within minutes of Israel’s winning the contest. The website noted that although no decision was made at the time of the victory whether the event would be held in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, the company saw an immediate rise in reservations for both cities. The Israel Association of Travel Agencies and Consultants, which is also preparing for Eurovision, commented, “Our colleagues abroad have already begun to inquire about packages and ground arrangements for the week of Eurovision.”
The major problems that organizers expect to run into are transportation, high prices, language difficulties and tough border controls that do not cater to tourists, who often are grilled upon entry to or exit from Israel. Eitan Schwartz said city hall hopes to preempt such ordeals. “We established a municipal task force to prepare for the event at the operational level, from the moment the tourist arrives at Ben-Gurion International Airport to his or her departure,” he said. “It is easy for us to think that Old Jaffa is wonderful, and that we hold a special exhibition there, but that is not the story. Rather, the story is transportation, visibility, information and the high prices here. Even if these matters are not under the authority of the municipality, we are prepared to solve them.”
Schwartz says representatives of the tourism and transportation ministries as well as the Airports Authority are part of the task force. “They have specific missions. For example, placing bus route maps in all the bus stops and increasing the number of shared taxi service lines to solve the public transportation issue on Shabbat,” he said. “Additionally, we are in discussions with the taxi drivers’ association. We are interested in getting to a point where there will be a clear price list for taxis and an explanation about the meter, passengers’ rights and the like.”
Schwartz added that the city prepared a list of activities that it wants to hold during the event and continue with afterward. The list includes a bus line from the airport to Tel Aviv, cooperation with the restaurants’ association regarding reasonable prices for alcohol, and dealing with taxis. “We know that if we have to point out three painful characteristics of tourism in Israel they are transportation, maintenance and sanitation, and the high costs.”
Schwartz says the city plans to make it clear that Tel Aviv is capable of organizing and hosting events of this order. Thus, according to Schwartz, “We will host a large delegation of event and convention planners. We want the participants to be exposed to what the city can offer, and we are thinking about how to leverage conferences, expos and business tourism – things that we didn’t deal with previously, and that can bring growth to the city.”