JERUSALEMThe push for LGBT tourism into Israel from North and South America comes, in part, from a straight, former Chicagoan who has participated in three recent Chicago Pride Paradesand is proud to say he has and calls the late June event "one of the most fun events in the city."
Uri Steinberg, 36, served as director of the Chicago office of the Israel Ministry of Tourism (IMOT) from the fall of 2007 through the fall of 2011. He moved back here to Israel, where he was born and raised, last September and is currently the IMOT director of North and South American operations. He is married with one daughter.
"We made many decisions to invest in [the LGBT] market" when in Chicago, Steinberg said. "We were the first governmental agency, the first country, to participate in the [Chicago Gay] Pride Parade."
The Israel tourism float in the Chicago Gay Pride Parade, jointly sponsored with the Israeli Consulate in Chicago, routinely features a DJ, dancers and more.
In addition, Steinberg was instrumental in IMOT's presence at Northalsted Market Days, where it had a booth featuring information on the LGBT scene in Israel.
IMOT also established, with the Israeli consulate, an advisory board from Chicago's LGBT community to discuss what needs to be included to make people better understand, appreciate and want to travel to Israel, Steinberg said.
"Tel Aviv has made a huge push forward [for the LGBT crowd], and that has helped the entire country," Steinberg said. "We know that Tel Aviv is the mecca of LGBT tourism in Israel. Many [LGBT] Europeans come to Israel for weekend breaks Friday to Monday, or Friday to Tuesday. They come to have fun, to party. Tel Aviv is one of the best LGBT cities in the worldand fortunately so many people around the world know that.
"That helps Jerusalem and other [Israel] cities. So many Israel cities are benefiting from Tel Aviv.
"We understand that the LGBT market is one that we should focus on and give our attention to in the years to come."
Tel Aviv has developed quickly in a non-stop beach city that features a wild after-hours scene at area clubs.
"A few years ago, there was this rumor going around about this great, hip city with beautiful people, with an extremely active nightlife that is very liberal and having beautiful weather. It took some time for people to realize how good of a destination Tel Aviv is, perhaps more than other major cities around the world. But that has changed," Steinberg said. "People know about Tel Aviv, especially within the LGBT community. I think everyone worldwide knows about Tel Aviv."
Jerusalem, on the other hand, is only a 50-minute drive away, yet has a very limited LGBT scene, with only two gay barsone that just opened this year, and neither is even as big as, say, Scarlet in Lakeview.
"Jerusalem is the focal point of most faith-based and faith-motivated [organizations]. But we hope the LGBT traveler will become more comfortable, wanting and willing to come to Jerusalem," Steinberg said.
Steinberg admitted Jerusalem might pose issues for LGBT travelers, based on its conservative, old-school approach. "At a hotel in Jerusalem, gay couples might be asked unwanted questions about their sexual orientation," Steinberg said. "However, in Tel Aviv, people know how to cater to your needs; they know what questions to ask and what questions not to ask."
Steinberg is pushing for advances in Jerusalem for the LGBT population and visitors.
"We know that, at the end of the day, the visitor to Israel does not have to be religious to truly appreciate Jerusalem, the sites in the city, the history, the culture," he said.
Locals often say that Jerusalem is where you pray and Tel Aviv is where you play. However, Steinberg emphasized, "There isn't a competition [between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem]. There cannot be a competition between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; Jerusalem is a much more complex city. The cities are so, so different, and yet so close; that truly makes it interesting, something very, very unique."
"One of the things that we want to convey is, a different image of Israel, a different image than people usually see on the evening news, a different image than people usually see in the newspapers … and that is that Israel is, indeed, a safe place, and that includes walking the streets 24/7, that kids are playing in the parks and that it's just a totally different environment than people sometimes see in the media," Steinberg said. "Israel is safe, it's transforming and it's more accessible than ever."