A Eurovision Fumble: How Israel Blew the Chance to Attract Thousands of Tourists

Ticket packages costing nearly three times more than past competitions, expensive hotels and taxi price gouging - the real reasons Europeans are staying away from Tel Aviv's Eurovision

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Chairs advertising the Eurovision Song Contest on a Tel Aviv beach, May 7, 2019.
Chairs advertising the Eurovision Song Contest on a Tel Aviv beach, May 7, 2019.Credit: AFP

Monday, 10 A.M.: The second day of rehearsals for the Eurovision Song Contest. Only a few dozen of the 500 seats allocated by the organizers at Expo Tel Aviv are occupied, most of them by bloggers and independent journalists who are addicted to this competition.

At the same time, in another auditorium, rehearsals are taking place for the first semi-final, which will be held on May 14. Every country gets to do two 30-minute rehearsals on stage, a time to check the sound and make any directorial or choreography changes, as well as to adjust the lighting for their performances. These rehearsals are strictly off-limits for recording or broadcasting.

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One after the other, the singers come forward and perform their songs, but the relative silence in the adjacent journalists’ area, from which the rehearsals can be seen on gigantic screens, is broken by only one person, the Swiss singer Luca Hanni, who gets a loud round of applause after finishing his song, “She Got Me.” Avowed Eurovision fans, journalists and bloggers could not ignore one of the most prominent songs of this contest, its performer considered one of the leading candidates for the top spot.

Journalists are the lifeblood of the Eurovision contest in Israel, as they have been in all previous competitions. They’re the ones who don’t miss any rehearsal by any contestant, making their video blogs and reporting any change in a singer’s outfit, making sure to update the world about all the contest’s secrets. The Israeli hosts in the Expo pavilion try not to annoy them lest it create an international incident.

Fear of rockets? No, just prices

Around 1,500 journalists will arrive in Israel for Eurovision, taking place from May 14 to 18 in Tel Aviv. Last week there were concerns that they would be reporting on rockets and shelling, or possibly the cancellation of the contest over an escalation of tensions in the south of the country. However, it seems that many are not even aware of the situation. “What rockets are you talking about?” wonders one member of the Montenegro contingent when we asked him if he was worried about the situation. The incomprehension in his eyes made it clear that he had no idea about the recent events in the south, and we hurried to assure him that a cease-fire had gone into effect, that the current round was over.

“Personally, I’m not concerned. I’m from London, a place that’s seen a few attacks of its own,” says Jude Habib, a Jewish journalist who works for one of Britain’s media outlets and is covering her 14th Eurovision contest. “I have family in Israel and I love this country. I try to convey that message – that there is nothing to worry about – to other people. I think people are not worried but are enjoying what they came here for. One of my friends here said jokingly that everything that happened here wasn’t real and that it was all pyrotechnics.”

Laufey Helga Guomundsdottir, the head of the Eurovision fan club in Iceland, which numbers 250 people, walks around the journalists’ area at a relaxed pace. “Eurovision is popular in Iceland and we have the highest number of viewers relative to the population, even though we haven’t made it to the finals for the last few years” says Guomundsdottir proudly. “Ninety seven percent of the population in Iceland watches the contest. There are no cars on the streets when it’s broadcast.”

Guomundsdottir is a lawyer by profession, but every May she becomes a journalist, covering Eurovision for the fan club. “I love it so much, it’s my vacation,” she says.

Even though Icelanders hold the contest in great regard, Guomundsdottir arrived in Israel with only 10 members of the fan club. By comparison, last year she went to Lisbon with 60 fans, and before that she was joined by 150 fans in Stockholm. Why didn’t more people come to Israel? She gives several reasons: the distance, the high price of tickets and a vacation in Israel, and also the impact of the boycott movement in Iceland. “There are political reasons for this, but I still think people in Iceland will be watching on TV, despite the fact that they weren’t willing to come here,” she says.

In contrast to earlier forecasts of 14,000-18,000 tourists coming for the contest, it now seems that only 5,000-7,000 will arrive. One reason is that a flight from Europe to Israel is more expensive than a train ticket from one country to another within the continent. Moreover, hotels in Tel Aviv are very expensive. Rates dropped by up to 70 percent only recently, in light of the low demand.

Guomundsdottir and her friends took the trouble to fly here, but ultimately they will not watch the competition from the auditorium itself, only on a television screen. “None of us bought tickets because they were too expensive. We have no tickets, not for the first semi-finals nor for the final. I’ll watch the contest from the journalists’ pen or from the Euro Village,” says Guomundsdottir without complaining or expressing a shred of disappointment. “It’s OK that I have no ticket, it’s a TV event and I get to meet my Eurovision family. I still hope I can get a ticket to the first semi-final for a good price, I understand prices have dropped somewhat. If not, I’ll manage.”

Guomundsdottir is not the exception. Journalists and bloggers who usually buy a package that includes three performances will not see the inside of the auditorium this time around. “Last year we paid 350 euros for a package which included all three events that were broadcast live. In Israel they were asking for almost 1,000 euros for the same package. In Oslo in 2010 it was 200 euros, so you can understand how much prices went up,” says Guomundsdottir.

For Diarmuid Furlong, who leads the Irish fan club and works in one of the country’s radio stations, this year is his 20th year contest the contest – and the most expensive one by far. “Up to five years ago you could find a package of tickets for rehearsals, the semi-final and the final even for 150 euros. Over the last few years that kind of package has increased to 300 euros. In Israel prices spiked to more than 900. The problem is that as soon as a host country defines a new price level, everyone later follows suit.”

Among his other tasks, Furlong is responsible for obtaining tickets for Irish fans. Last year, 190 fans asked him to get them tickets to the contest, but he managed to obtain only 130. This year, only 25 fans came from Ireland, and only 12 of them bought tickets for the performances. “The others will simply watch it from the Euro Village” he says. “Most of the fans stayed away because of the costs. I only heard of one person that decided not to come due to the security situation. For all the rest it was the price that determined their decision. Many people deliberated whether to come or not, and when the flight prices were finally released, they decided not to, since they were too expensive.”

“From what I understood, the Israeli government was supposed to pay for security but when they didn’t, prices went up,” Furlong says. “People talked about it, and the European Broadcasting Union did not hide their criticism over this issue. I think the government in Israel should understand the implications of its decision not to fund Eurovision, which is why it’s so expensive, with many empty hotel rooms. It’s true that Lisbon is closer, but I still thought 100 to 120 fans would come here.”

Habib says her fans go to every competition regardless of costs. They save all year for it and consider the competition priceless.

The Kan public broadcaster says that it had to cover all costs, without the state chipping in, despite the harm that caused to local artists. Ticket sales and sponsorships were supposed to diminish the impact. “Comparisons to earlier years are irrelevant given the high cost of living here and the expenses associated with moving equipment from Europe to Israel,” it stated.

Missing Tourism Ministry

The Tel Aviv municipality is everywhere, encouraging journalists and bloggers to join free tours over the next two weeks. Kan is giving them free bus tickets so they can move around easily. Habib and Furlong can’t stop heaping praises on the city. “Tel Aviv has invested more than any other host city I’ve seen. The municipality has organized something special on each day for fans – it’s amazing” says Habib.

In contrast, the absence of the Ministry of Tourism is striking. It has posted nothing at the venue to advertise Jerusalem, Nazareth, the Dead Sea, or anything outside Tel Aviv. There is no representative to meet journalists who have come on a joyous occasion, leveraging the opportunity to promote more tourism. There is one app, organized by Kan and the Government Press Office. It gives information about possible tours, but no one is urging journalists to leave their Eurovision bubble and see some of the country’s beautiful sights. This is a huge missed opportunity for tourism.

The Ministry of Tourism responded that it had purchased from Kan the right to advertise the event overseas, where most of its activities are focused.

Both Guomundsdottir and Furlong have already fallen victim to price gouging, with Laufe paying 350 shekels ($98) for a taxi from the airport to Tel Aviv, more than double the usual price. Furlong was also charged $18 for a gin and tonic at a bar. Food prices for journalists at Expo Tel Aviv are reasonable, and water bottles are supplied for free. But it’s unclear whether these prices will also apply to the audience that comes to watch the performances.

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