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Looking to Relax in Israel in May? Stay Away From Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv hopes this year’s Eurovision will put it on the map as a potential venue for major events – but first it needs to house and entertain up to 20,000 revelers

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Crowd members taking pictures during a performance at the Eurovision semifinal allocation draw, in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, January 28, 2019.
Crowd members taking pictures during a performance at the Eurovision semifinal allocation draw, in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, January 28, 2019.Credit: \ CORINNA KERN/ REUTERS

If you’re looking for a quiet and relaxing travel destination in mid-May, here’s a helpful tip: Stay away from Tel Aviv.

If all goes as planned, the city will be bursting at the seams, overflowing with party-loving pop music fans making their annual pilgrimage to the Eurovision Song Contest.

Thanks to Netta Barzilai’s victory with “Toy” in Lisbon last year, Israel is hosting the 2019 contest on May 14-18. And after a well-publicized back-and-forth regarding whether the country’s capital – the holy city of Jerusalem – would host the unholier qualities of Eurovision, the European Broadcast Union decided to hold the extravaganza in a city that has been eagerly awaiting an opportunity to show itself off to the world.

Ground Zero in preparations for Israel’s Eurovision close-up is the offices of Tel Aviv Global & Tourism, where the pressure is on CEO Eytan Schwartz to deliver. Schwartz may have a background in diplomacy and pro-Israeli propaganda, but it’s not his job to to worry about the Eurovision artists or fans who might not come to Israel as the result of pressure from the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Instead, Schwartz’s problem is making sure the thousands of visitors expected to attend Eurovision “all have a fantastic time.”

Tel Aviv Global & Tourism CEO Eytan Schwartz.Credit: Kfir Ziv

A visit to Schwartz’s North Tel Aviv offices finds him flanked by a cadre of young assistants and dealing with the final stages of selecting a contractor for the construction and operation of an ambitious project the city has never attempted before: A massive tent city in Hayarkon Park to help accommodate the tourist overflow.

As anyone who has watched either of the recent Fyre Festival documentaries can attest, much can go wrong when attempting such an endeavor with the world watching. Schwartz says he is working around the clock – in coordination with Israel’s communications, finance, tourism and public security ministries – to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Tel Aviv Global & Tourism was created by Mayor Ron Huldai in 2012 and Schwartz has headed it for three years, charged with improving the city’s status as a top urban tourist destination. The initiative is modeled on similar efforts in other Europe cities, particularly a promotional agency for London.

Schwartz sees the process of bulking up for Eurovision as the first step in a large and ambitious vision for Tel Aviv. In the future, he hopes the coastal city can attract major conferences and, longer-term, host other significant cultural festivals and sporting events. That’s why the city’s investment of at least $7 million in hosting the song contest will pay off, he believes.

“What we really want out of the Eurovision is a city that projects a message to the world that it can host large international events,” he says. “Today, Tel Aviv is not yet on the radar for this … we haven’t been competing in that market. This is the largest-scale event we have ever hosted, and as we plan for Eurovision we are developing muscles that will allow us to be able to host much more.”

Schwartz likes to use a bodybuilding analogy when describing the skill set the municipality must develop in order to regularly host international conventions, music festivals and sporting events.

“I see it like going to the gym for the first time – a gym we’ve never been to before. So now we’ve gotten there, and as we start to work out we’re discovering muscles we never knew existed and experiencing all kinds of sensations we never felt before,” says Schwartz. “And we hope that when it comes time for Eurovision, we will be fit – and that we’ll stay that way.”

A simulation of the Eurovision Song Contest stage in Tel Aviv for the 2019 event from May 14-18.Credit: Florian Wieder

Asked if his dream is to host the Olympics someday, he smiles and says “Inshallah.” But before any such fantasies can begin to be realized, he first has to make sure Eurovision goes perfectly.

Place of Pride

Schwartz’s biggest challenge is ensuring that the delegations of performers, their support staff, entourage and fans all have somewhere to sleep.

Israeli flags and flags bearing the logo of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest flutter outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, January 28, 2019.Credit: \ CORINNA KERN/ REUTERS

Tel Aviv has enjoyed record levels of tourists over the past few years with each year topping the previous one – and May is when the tourist season ramps up. At least 10,000 visitors are expected in the city for Eurovision – although no one knows how many will actually show up, with some estimates going as high as 20,000.

The Expo Tel Aviv where the three shows will take place is a relatively small venue by Eurovision standards, and the reduced ticket sales may mean that the numbers won’t hit the mark of 30,000 that some previous contests reached.

But even 10,000 extra tourists will tax the city’s supply of 11,000 hotel rooms, which are supplemented by an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 living spaces that are rented out for at least a few days a month on online platforms like Airbnb.

While Schwartz insists that rooms are still available for Eurovision, they are few in number and don’t come cheap – as a recent Haaretz price check found, with rooms in top hotels hard to find for less than $500 per night.

That’s where the campsite, adjacent to the Expo, comes into play. With fingers crossed that the chosen contractor can supply what they are promising, the municipality has announced three levels of park accommodations: basic camping, where guests are invited to bring their own tent or rent camping gear on site; “glamping,” in a higher standard of tent; and “luxury caravans,” a “comfortable and spacious caravan fully equipped with bathrooms, air-conditioning and more.”

Israelis and tourists participate in the annual Gay Pride parade in Tel Aviv's beach, Israel, Friday, June 8, 2012. Credit: AP

While they aren’t erecting the tents themselves, Schwartz says the city will supply infrastructure for the campsite: bathrooms; showers; a recreation and party area; food and beverages stalls; and a bike rental spot. The campsite will open at least a week before Eurovision, he says, and remain operational for another month and a half – providing an option for those flying in a month later for Tel Aviv Pride Week, including the parade on June 14.

Until this year Pride has been the event that has most regularly drawn thousands of overseas visitors to Tel Aviv. Since Eurovision is popular in the LGBT community, city hall had considered moving Pride Week earlier to create a combined experience. But it was ultimately decided that the festivities were best left separate.

The shallow end

Schwartz admits, sadly, that another “creative solution” for accommodating the overflow of tourists has had to be discarded. For a time, the municipality explored the idea of parking a large cruise ship off of Tel Aviv’s coastline to act as an offshore hotel. But unfortunately, Schwartz says, “The water here is too shallow for it to be feasible economically. It’s not going to work.”

The concept hasn’t been completely abandoned for the future, though. In coming years, Schwartz says, it is possible that such cruise ships will be anchored in Tel Aviv or nearby between April and October, for when tourism numbers peak.

The trick, Schwartz adds, is mastering “the accordion effect”: Building a city that can expand to accommodate thousands of visitors and then be able to return to normal size without investing in infrastructure that will stand empty, unprofitably, the rest of the time.

After accommodations, the biggest Eurovision challenge will be transportation. This is a particularly daunting task given Tel Aviv’s already problematic traffic situation, and the fact that the most intensive activity takes place on the Friday and Saturday – the Jewish Sabbath, when public transportation in Israel does not operate.

Throughout the event there will be shuttles connecting the Tel Aviv Expo on the northern edge of town and the main entertainment venue, the Euro Village, which will be located much further south at Charles Clore Park.

Charles Clore Park in south Tel Aviv. The beachfront site will be transformed into the Euro Village for Eurovision in May.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Operating that shuttle will be simple enough, but a bigger challenge will be getting the participants and audience members from their hotels located around and outside the city to and from the shows at the Expo and also to the Euro Village, which is where the bulk of the action will take place: music, dancing, performances and food, all located alongside Tel Aviv’s most popular tourist attraction – the beach.

The village will be open to the public for 10 days and feature performances by former and current Eurovision stars, as well as live broadcasts of the semifinals (on May 14 and 16) and the final (9 P.M. on May 18) for those who aren’t able to get tickets.

The challenge Schwartz is least concerned about meeting is making visitors feel welcome. Tel Avivians love to show off their city, and he plans to have the city covered with banners celebrating the event, with local volunteers placed at strategic points throughout the city to help guide and advise newcomers.

To prepare for the onslaught, Schwartz and other officials visited European cities that previously hosted the event. They found the Swedes – who have a lot of experience in hosting the event, most recently at Stockholm in 2016 – particularly helpful.

They were advised, he says, “not to go crazy with more content,” meaning additional cultural events during the time of the contest; to keep the focus on the venue and Euro Village; and to let the guests discover the rest of the city’s nightlife for themselves.

“They told us to just let them enjoy the city. It is a distinct audience: A very easy-going, fun crowd – these aren’t hooligans of any sort. They love to party, they love to spend a lot of money,” Schwarz says. “For a lot of people, the Eurovision is their yearly vacation and they just want to have a good time. As long as the city is festive and the Eurovision visitors feel like the people want them there, everything will be fantastic.”

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