On Saturday night, the most popular music event ever held in Israel, the Eurovision Song Contest, will reach its peak. Many millions of shekels were spent on it.
The Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation (Kan) paid NIS 110 million after taking out a loan, the Tel Aviv municipality's economic investment in the event is tens of millions, and the Tourism Ministry has also invested quite a bit. There was also someone who paid with his life - the truck driver who was killed when a piece of lighting equipment fell on him as it was being unloaded.
A few weeks after the announcement of the competition in Tel Aviv, hotel prices were raised by tens of percent. The celebration and the hysteria stemmed from the expectation published by the Tel Aviv municipality that 20,000 tourists would flock to the city. Oded Grofman, CEO of the Tel Aviv Hotel Association, estimates that only 5,000 to 7,000 tourists are in Tel Aviv this week.
The tourists stayed in Europe.
Four cities offered to host the Eurovision Song Contest: Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and Eilat. Ultimately, only Tel Aviv and Jerusalem stayed in the race. "Kan wanted to reserve 3,000 hotel rooms," says Grofman. "The hotels in Tel Aviv offered very low prices in order to win the tender, and at the end, this was one of the reasons we won."
The hotels reserved rooms for the requested amount and were prepared for more tourists. "Some of them said that they'll raise the price for the remaining rooms. They did this irresponsibly." The hotel owners who raised the price relied on the expectation of a large number of tourists, as well as the usual occupancy in hotels in Tel Aviv during this period. But the tourists failed to flock en masse to Israel. "The tourists who usually come in May came earlier or decided to push off their trip so as not to be in Tel Aviv this week. Furthermore, Kan saw that it needed only about 1,000 rooms." At the end, the number of tourists arriving was about half that was expected."
Grofman says that the estimate wasn't realistic from the beginning. "We estimated there would be thousands. The Eurovision tourists are low-budget tourists who sleep in guest rooms and not in luxury hotels. The hall itself is half the size of the auditorium used last year in Lisbon, which held 15,000 spectators. In Israel, there's only 7,500 places and only a quarter of them are intended for people who come from abroad. "
It seems that the high prices in the hotels were also part of the problem, although in recent weeks prices have dropped dramatically.
Why wasn't there a call to the hotel owners to keep prices sane?
"As a union, we are legally forbidden to influence the lowering and coordination of prices. I think most of the hotels were managed responsibly. It's true that there were those who hiked the prices up but eventually they also lowered their prices."
The Tourism Ministry was not concerned with the number of tourists. "Who knows exactly how many tourists arrived?" said Anat Aharonson, a spokeswoman for the ministry. "Anyone who claims to know should tell me how they know. Every month, we get the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) data, and that's the only data we give credence to."
Aharonson adds that there was no expectation of the same number of tourists which flocked to the European stages. "Israel's geographical distance from European countries is much further than the countries within Europe, where people can travel by car." In addition, she says, getting to Israel is relatively expensive for Europeans. And besides, there is no need to get excited about the number of tourists. "We're not concerned by the number of tourists. Every month, 400,000 tourists arrive in Israel. Every month we beat a record on the number of tourists, so another 5,000 or less - it's not significant.
"Let them see how special the country is."
The Tourism Ministry views Eurovision as a lever for positive exposure to Israel. Recently, the ministry launched a campaign called "Doz Foa", a campaign that was publicized abroad, accompanied by a logo of the Eurovision Song Contest which garnered dozens of millions of views and exposures. The ministry also purchased broadcasting rights from Kan to utilize videos from the competition. "In addition, we led tours of the Dead Sea and Jerusalem for international reporters who came to Israel for Eurovision," Aharonson relates.
There are currently about 1,500 journalists in Israel from around the world, through which all the Israeli interests involved in Eurovision are attempting to convey a positive view of Israel, especially in light of the anti-Israel movements prevalent in many European countries. Incidentally, no delegation canceled its arrival for political reasons. The Icelandic delegation, which wanted to carry out a political protest, gave up its plan after being warned by the European Broadcasting Corporation.
Gidi Shmerling, the head of the Tel Aviv municipality's marketing and communications department, says that the municipality has invested considerable effort and money to create an image of a city that never stops. It has built hospitality and entertainment complexes and is hosting 1,500 opinion leaders as well as the 1,500 journalists. "We're doing all this just so the tourists can see that the State of Israel is one of the most fascinating countries in the world and they can learn how special our country is."
Schmerling insists that Eurovision is not a celebration of a particular sector, or of Tel Aviv residents only. "In the Eurovision village, where free performances are held for the general public, 90 percent are people from different parts of the country."
Are you disappointed with the number of tourists?
"We would be happy if we had more, but we see a lot of tourists and the atmosphere is wonderful. What's important is the amount of exposure and how the artists feel, who are very influential on social media. They have hordes of followers and they constantly post videos, telling about their experiences in Tel Aviv, and that's exciting. We get very good feedback. The test is what will happen to Tel Aviv and Israel regarding tourism next year."
"The State of Israel is humiliated."
Due to the fact that the Eurovision final is on Saturday night, those who observe Shabbat have been excluded. The Shalva group was the first when it was forced to withdraw from the competition due to the fact that rehearsals are held on Shabbat. Instead, it was decided that the band would appear in the semi-finals. The second one who withdrew was the popular singer Omer Adam, who refused to participate in Eurovision due to the rehearsals that take place on Shabbat. Even Sabbath-observant production and stage people couldn't contribute to Eurovision.
Those who voiced a protest against the desecration of the Sabbath were the haredi parties. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Netanyahu sent a letter to the leaders of United Torah Judaism, in which he apologized for the desecration of the Sabbath due to Eurovision. "The Eurovision Song Contest is an international l event set in advance by international standards that are not under government control," he wrote. The prime minister also clarified that Kan is exclusively running the event. Netanyahu added that "most of the participants in the event are from abroad and are not Jewish" but he didn't mention the stage and production workers, the security guards, etc. In an interview with Army Radio, the corporation's CEO Eldad Koblenz said that no request had been received from the government of Israel to reduce the desecration of the Sabbath.
Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, who was the rabbi of Ramat Gan for many years, is aware that Kan has no flexibility regarding the competition due to the strict rules of the European Broadcasting Corporation. But he thinks it could have been different: "The State of Israel is humiliated. It can't preserve its dignity. Israel can firmly tell the Europeans that we rest on Shabbat. The Europeans would respect it. If a Muslim country said it had a holiday, the Europeans would respect it. The principles of the Eurovision Song Contest are more important than ours? I'm not referring to the individual observance of Shabbat but the national aspect."