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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Gay man part of Israel's tourism push, will receive award
SPECIAL ON ISRAEL
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2012-04-11

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Russell Lord went on a summer trip in 1981 from his native New York to Europe and Israel—and never went back.

He found a new life and new career—along with a life partner—and has grown into an award-winner as a marketing and tourism consultant for Kenes Tours, based in Tel Aviv, where he now lives.

"My career in tourism has given me the opportunity to meet great people, make wonderful friends, and to promote a country that I love, that I've made my home, and that has accepted me as one of them," Russell said. "It's been a great road and I hope for it to continue for a long time to come."

Russell, 54, has been with his partner, Avi Ozeri, since 1982 and the two were married in 2005. He has worked in the tourism industry since 1983.

"In 1983-1984 I decided to put my B.A. in accounting in the drawer and make a career out of something I love," Russell said. "I enrolled in the Israeli ministry of tourism's two-year course of study and started my career in incoming tourism. I learned the sites of the country. Although Israel is about the size of New Jersey, there is a lot to see, and I started putting programs together.

"Here in Israel, 'itinerary building' involves knowing which sites are for which people. Each religion has its own set of footsteps to follow, each community has its own set of sites they are interested in seeing. I would say I specialize in building custom-made programs for tourists that not only want a 'general program' but have a specific field of interest."

That includes the LGBT market, which Russell has mastered.

"As my closet door has been wide open since I was a kid, it didn't take long for friends and colleagues in the tourism industry to consult with me for advice on where to take [ LGBT tourists, ] " Russell said.

When others wanted to know where in Israel to take two gay guys, or what sites would be particularly interesting for a lesbian couple, or where were the best gay clubs, Russell was the go-to guy. He had the answers—and still does.

"It soon became apparent to me that there was a new trend in tourism and I could take it and run with it throughout the Middle East," Russell said. "By 1995, a large percentage of the tourists coming to visit Israel were including [ the nearby country of ] Jordan into their touring program. Together with Jordanian colleagues, we built programs for both countries.

"What could be better than working in the field that I love with gay professionals for members of my own community, all of us making sure our guests get the best.

"It's been [ more than ] 20 years since Kenes Tours made the decision to actively encourage gay and lesbian travelers to visit Israel. In the course of numerous sales trips to Europe, Canada and the U.S., I have visited and spoken at numerous gay/lesbian organizations, including travel companies from the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association ( IGLTA ) that specializes in gay and lesbian travel, [ as well as ] MCC churches and LGBT synagogues. Before I knew it, we were on the international pink map of places to visit. Gay pastors and lesbian rabbis have been landing for years now with their flocks at Ben Gurion Airport [ in Israel ] .

"The top travel companies that cater to the LGBT traveler added Israel and Jordan to their list of destinations and have made their Israel/Jordan trips an annual event."

LGBT tourism to Israel certainly starts in Tel Aviv, which has developed into the "mecca" for LGBT travelers from around the world, Russell said. Located on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, Tel Aviv boasts great beaches, bars, clubs and restaurants in an overly gay-friendly environment. Jerusalem, known as the Holy City, is an easy 50-minute car ride from Tel Aviv.

"As the stream of LGBT tourists has increased [ in recent years ] , instead of having to approach the restaurants, hotels, [ and ] tour guides for services, they are now calling me with a never-ending song of, 'When is your next LGBT group coming to our hotel, to our restaurant, etc.,'" Russell said.

Tel Aviv was the host city for the 2009 IGLTA Symposium, in which 20 IGLTA members toured the country, as well as Jordan. That Tel Aviv conference was widely covered by the local media, coverage which even gave more of a "shot in the arm" to local tourism, Russell said.

"A great deal of the credit for the success and buzz that this symposium caused is due to the support Tel Aviv's municipality gives to the promotion of gay and lesbian tourism," he said. "I don't know how many IGLTA Symposiums in a major city have been welcomed by the Mayor of that city, which did happen in Tel Aviv.

"After the symposium, my phone rang off the hook from suppliers asking me to send our IGLTA tourists in their direction. We reached a goal—not only are we accepted, but sought after.

"As all tourism professionals know, I've also learned that our business is dynamic, always changing. If we don't stay on our toes, we'll be left behind. There is always the next 'in and cool, new destination'—and each has its newest can't-be-missed hotel, restaurant, club, etc. Israel is no different. We always have to be one step ahead. I've always believed that our community is blessed—and that we can do 'it' better. Doesn't really matter what 'it' is—we can do it better. My IGLTA colleagues give me the opportunity to prove this every time they arrive in Israel."

To that, IGLTA is honoring Russell. The 29th annual Global Convention of IGLTA is April 12-14 in Florianopolis, Brazil. Russell is being honored as a pioneer in the industry, part of annual awards selected by the IGLTA board of directors from the association's membership of tourism businesses in 89 countries.

Incidentally, Chicago will host the 2013 IGLTA conference.

"The board of IGLTA is so very pleased to recognize these honorees from around the world," IGLTA Chair Tanya Churchmuch said in a statement. "Each and every one of them has played an important role in promoting LGBT travel in the most extraordinary of ways, from pioneering LGBT family travel to highlighting the plight of gays and lesbians in the Middle East to spearheading LGBT media in Brazil. It's an honor to recognize each of them for the work they are doing every day."

The other IGLTA honors are:

—The Hanns Ebensten Hall of Fame Award: Gregg Kaminsky, R Family Vacations, for his innovation in developing a successful tourism product for LGBT families;

—The Chair Award: Javier Blanco, director of UNWTO Affiliate Members, for bringing LGBT travel to the forefront of discussion among the United Nations World Tourism Organization membership;

—Community ( based in the IGLTA convention host city/country ) : Andre Fischer, MiX Brasil, for his longstanding contributions to building queer visibility in Brazil through media; and

—Travel Writer: Michael Luongo, for his years of travel journalism, gay and straight, with a focus on the Middle East and Latin America.

"Winning an award from my peers/colleagues is the greatest honor," Russell said. "I have great professional respect for IGLTA. Their strength demonstrates that the LGBT community is a force to be reckoned with; we're not just a few travel agents booking a hotel here or there. The award speaks of 'pioneering LGBT travel in the Middle East,' and this is something I suppose I have really done. However, in the same breath, I must say that I have not been doing this alone.

"I've had the assistance and cooperation of plenty of people along the way. Before the mayor of Tel Aviv, the Tel Aviv tourism board and many other important forces were together with us, there were many individuals who joined forces with me in the belief that Tel Aviv in particular deserved a solid place on the listing of the LGBT traveler's must-see destinations."

Russell said about 30 percent of his work involves LGBT travelers, and that May and June are peak LGBT tourism months in Tel Aviv. He said travel to Israel also is heavy in December, during the spring around Easter/Passover, and in August ( for the French ) .

"Twenty years ago, when LGBT tourists came to Israel, they did not think they were coming to a particularly LGBT-friendly destination," Russell said. "Over the course of the years, Israel in general, and Tel Aviv in particular, has adopted a strategic position of reaching out to the LGBT traveler.

"Of course, the biggest misconception about Israel is that we are living in fear and in a constant state of conflict. Also, there are many people who do not know that Israel is an open-minded country, with laws regarding the LGBT community far ahead of those in Western Europe and the U.S."

Russell said the average LGBT tourist coming to Israel ranges in age from 35 to 50. Most come from the United States, Canada and the U.K. He also has welcomed LGBT guests from Spain, Italy, Holland, Germany, Brazil and elsewhere around the world. The vast majority are gay men. However, most of the pro-LGBT groups, consisting of 15 to 30 participants, have been organized by lesbians. Russell said the number of trans guests is low, although it's increasing annually.

"There are some sites [ in Israel ] that just do not have a 'gay slant' on them. Massada is Massada and the Sea of Galilee is the Sea of Galilee; there's no way to paint these sites pink," Russell said. "However whereever appropriate, my goal is to highlight the LGBT connection to our guests."

For example, when visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, Russell said his guides always discuss what happened to the LGBT communities under the Nazi regimes throughout Europe. When visiting the Israeli Supreme Court, they discuss the legal status of the LGBT community in Israel through laws that were passed in the Supreme Court. Then, in the Galilee, "we'll plant trees in the Pride Forest that was established in one of the local kibbutzim," he said. In Tel Aviv, they visit the gay community center that was established by the Tel Aviv Municipality.

"I'm very proud of the peace and understanding work that we've done through LGBT tourism," Russell said. "With Amman as our venue, we've arranged meetings for our tourists with gay and lesbian Israelis, Egyptians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Syrians, Palestinians, and Lebanese to talk about the issues of the day, about life in each country, about gay/lesbian life. Of course after the serious talk, it's out for a good meal. To see the dynamic exchange of ideas and knowledge and opinions between everyone is so heart-warming. After meetings like this, I really feel that I've done a little something in creating some understanding in the world."

Russell said there are many tour guides in Israel who are more than happy to work with LGBT tourists, including some openly gay and lesbian guides, along with many straight, gay-friendly guides. "When I assign a guide to be with tourists, the most important thing to me is that they are a top-notch guide and an open-minded human being," Russell said. "The guide's sexual-orientation is of less importance to me. Of course, if a gay group of guides can have a top-notch gay guide, all the better."

Russell Lord can be reached at rlord@kenes.com .


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