If you live in Copenhagen and you're offered a cheap flight to Tel Aviv at the end of the cold winter – would you buy a ticket and come for a weekend? Forget the Dead Sea, Jerusalem and Bethlehem for a moment. Is Tel Aviv an attractive tourist destination? And if so, why? What’s the reason for boarding a plane in Warsaw, Stockholm or Rome and flying several hours in order to visit Tel Aviv? Just between us, nobody really comes here in order to see its internationally renowned architecture, exemplifying the Bauhaus style. So why do they come?
Dozens of times in the past few days, I've said “Excuse me, do you have a moment?” in heavily Mediterranean-accented English. Tourists are suspicious of an older man who approaches them with a bundle of papers that threaten to scatter in the wind, and an overly friendly smile. The first reaction, naturally, is somewhat reserved. Several people immediately said that they didn't have time. Others, mainly women, regarded me suspiciously, perhaps thinking I was trying to harass them or sell them something.
But things usually turned around a moment later, when I explained in a low and apologetic voice that I was conducting a short, anonymous, private survey about Tel Aviv as a tourist destination. An absolute majority of those polled smiled broadly. “A wonderful city” was the unanimous reply of those who paused, put aside their plans and either spoke to me or filled out the rather tedious questionnaire that I'd prepared in advance.
Afterward came the comments; there were things they didn’t like. But there were certain sites that were mentioned as favorites in every one of the questionnaires, and in the final analysis the city was described as a marvelous place – one that's worthwhile to visit, a perfect place for a (long) weekend of rest and relaxation on the beach and for good food. An expensive city, that’s for sure: indeed, in the opinion of some, even insanely expensive, but still fun. In short, a genuine tourist destination.
The most interesting distinction I gleaned from the responses was that between a beautiful city and an interesting one: None of the tourists I met thought that Tel Aviv is beautiful. Paris is beautiful, Venice is beautiful. All agreed, however, that Tel Aviv is fascinating and that its beaches are wonderful.
At the end of the tiring process of filling out and summing up the questionnaires, my own opinion of the city improved drastically. If tourists are in love with it, there must be advantages here that we locals don’t always see. Although we’re not talking here about a survey based on scientific parameters or a representative sampling, the replies were so clear cut and unequivocal that statistical analyses seemed unnecessary.
Some of the replies were very obvious ("It’s terribly expensive here"), but others were surprising. It turns out that Tel Aviv appears to be a city that is quite clean and not especially crowded. It turns out that we locals are pleasant and hospitable (wonderful news!), and even the service in the restaurants and cafes is good. And the most surprising thing: The public transportation doesn’t seem like a catastrophe to the tourists. Several even mentioned it favorably. Maybe they were just being polite? I’m still trying to figure out whether they confused the outdoor Carmel produce market with the upscale Sarona market. Both star as favorite sites.
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Everything described below is based on a total of 70 conversations and questionnaires. Sixty of the respondents were random – tourists that I “caught” or harassed in hotel lobbies, at one large hostel or at public places around the city. Another 10 replies, more detailed and focused, came from foreign journalists who write about tourism and have visited the city in the past, or professionals involved in promoting tourism.
Respondents were asked to rate their responses according to a scale from 1 to 5 (with 5 being "excellent").
Is Tel Aviv an interesting city?
The answer is an unequivocal yes, but it turns out that it’s more fun and enjoyable at night than during the daytime: Tel Aviv as a destination for an interesting day trip received a grade of 4, but Tel Aviv at night got a perfect 5.
Did you visit any museum?
No, no and no. Apparently no tourist comes here to visit a museum. It's worthwhile mentioning that, according to the website of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, there are 25 museums of art, heritage and nature in the city. But they’re doing something very wrong there because the tourists I spoke to don’t think those places are worth a visit.
Is the food good?
Fantastic. That’s one of the questions that received the broadest consensus. Everyone gave the city the highest rating in the culinary realm. It's worth explaining here that those surveyed were, at least to judge by their appearance, people of various income levels. Not all ate at pretentious restaurants. Several specifically mentioned shawarma as their favorite dish. Others said they would come back again to taste some of the “divine" shakshuka. They were excited by the local falafel.
Are you pleased by the place where you are staying?
Here too there was general satisfaction, although somewhat less than above. The average in this category was 4-5 – in other words, almost the highest rating. The tourists I spoke to slept in a boutique hotel, a large hotel on the promenade, a hostel or Airbnb properties. Several had strange stories about doors that didn’t lock properly or privacy that was not always respected, but they added that they had expected such things vis-a-vis a vacation in the Mediterranean. Everything's cool.
Is the city clean?
A surprise: Most of those surveyed think that Tel Aviv is pretty clean. A summary of responses indicates that the average grade is 3-4. Far from perfect, but still positive.
Is the city crowded?
Not especially. Most respondents explained that an urban vacation doesn’t arouse expectations of splendid isolation. A good city market is by nature crowded. In any event, they noted that there are quite a few places in the city where one can sit comfortably – on the beaches, for example – without feeling squashed by masses of humanity.
Did you use a bicycle during your visit?
Only about 10 percent of those polled answered in the affirmative. Several mentioned that the rental fees are expensive. Others said that the city is small and there’s no problem getting around on foot. Some thought that the public transportation was excellent, so you don’t need a bike.
Is there enough information in English?
Yes. Tel Aviv is very friendly to English speakers. There is no lack of signs or information in that language. I didn’t ask about other languages.
Are the hospitality and the service good here?
Yes, the locals are friendly – was the typical response. They want to help in any way possible. They are polite and pleasant. Several of those surveyed, however, excluded taxi drivers from that generalization.
Is the public transportation good?
Yes, except that there’s no public transportation on Saturday – a fact that to most tourists seems bizarre, incomprehensible and maybe some sort of hitch that will probably be rectified in a few hours or days. What – no? You have no public transportation on Saturday? Why not?
What was your favorite place in the city?
The beaches are the stars among all those questioned. There wasn’t a single person who didn’t mention them as the best part of the city. The Tel Aviv promenade is the greatest success in terms of attracting tourists to the city. It's why people said they came here.
After they finish praising the beaches, we went on to other local sites: Jaffa turns out to be an attraction; its flea market, port and coastline aroused interest. As did Neve Tzedek, the Carmel Market and it’s non-twin sister, Sarona. Some people talked about Habima Square. Surprisingly, Rothschild Boulevard was hardly mentioned at all. No one brought up Tel Aviv's status as the White City – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – or its Bauhaus or International style architecture. The Tel Aviv Port seemed to be very popular. Hayarkon Park appeared on only one questionnaire. As a municipal park and attraction for tourists, it's out of bounds. Maybe the Eurovision Song Contest will change that.
Are the prices reasonable?
No! Nobody thinks the prices here are logical. The replies ranged from horribly expensive to somewhat expensive: They were polite but decisive.
Does the city give one good value for money?
What would make you return here or extend your stay?
Lower the prices!
Things you see from there
Elo Reisch Pilcik, editor of a tourism magazine in Vienna, has visited Tel Aviv about 10 times. She says she’s in love with Israel in general and the city in particular. A request for suggestions of what can be improved in Tel Aviv makes her somewhat anxious. After two days of thinking, she replied in a long email.
You should provide shade all along the promenade, she wrote. You must separate the electric bicycles and scooters from the pedestrians – the current situation is impossible. You should allocate more lanes to bicycles, and the entire system of rental of public bicycles is not user-friendly, especially for tourists. You could improve public transportation and, mainly, operate it on Saturday. More reasonable prices in restaurants and hotels would be very helpful.
Anita Szarlik is a journalist and magazine editor from Warsaw, who often travels and writes about tourist destinations. First, she explained how comfortable and safe she felt in Tel Aviv. She said that the city is open, friendly and interesting, the weather is perfect and the men are handsome. But then she went on the offensive.
“I still clearly recall my first shock at the prices. We were sitting on the beach with a beer that we'd bought at a kiosk for 20 shekels ($5.60) and I wanted to cry. Everything seemed so expensive compared to Warsaw," said Szarlik.
"In my opinion you should promote a city card for tourists only, which gives discounts to cultural events and museums. Oslo is a more expensive city than Tel Aviv. But the municipal card makes it possible to experience local culture there.”