Tel Aviv voted best gay hotspot for 2011, beating New York, Berlin and San Francisco in an online poll.
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL (RECENT) (REUTERS) - Sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews around the world, the Holy Land has drawn pilgrims for centuries. But championed as a gay paradise, Tel Aviv is becoming a hotspot for a different type of tourism.
This month Tel Aviv won best city in an American Airlines and a GayCities.com contest, sweeping aside New York, Berlin and San Francisco with 43 percent of the votes.
Far from the narrow alleyways of Jerusalem where many black-garbed ultra-Orthodox Jews live, the boisterous nightclubs, non-Kosher eateries and street cafes of Israel's sunny seaside metropolis have seen a sharp rise in gay tourism.
As hundreds of people filled the dance floor at a typical gay party in a Tel Aviv nightclub last week, the Holy Wigs drag queen ensemble, along with two other drag performers, was preparing to take the stage.
Wearing a red dress and blond wig, drag queen Ziona Patriot, said part of Tel Aviv's allure for gays around the world was its freshness. San Francisco, New York and Amsterdam, were old news.
"And of course we have the Israeli guys, (who) are so amazing. The best looking dudes in the whole world are in Israel," Patriot said.
Iliya Sheirtz, a tourist from Berlin who took part in the midnight festivities, told Reuters Television that he "fell in love with the city".
"Winter time it doesn't matter because you have the beach over there, you have the sun over there and you have a lot of great parties over there, much more than in Berlin, in my hometown. And I found much more friends here than anywhere else in the world. You can be here alone, you never stay alone longer than ten minutes than all over the world. That's really great, I love this city, I fell in love with it," he said.
Israel's Tourism Ministry, along with Tel Aviv's municipality launched a campaign three years ago aimed at boosting rainbow tourism.
Adir Steiner, coordinator of city pride events at the Tel Aviv municipality, said gay tourism was up 25 percent in 2011.
"Tel Aviv is hot right now, because it's unique, it's in the Middle East where it's not so easy to be gay and it's like a paradise in an area where you would not obviously found an open city like Tel Aviv. So people find it interesting," Steiner said.
Leon Avigad, owner of the gay friendly Brown hotel said Tel Aviv has become a "gay Mecca" and is enjoying a tremendous tourist boom in recent years.
"Tel Aviv is now perceived as a gay Mecca. People are coming (to see) art and galleries and bars and restaurants and it's all the time in the scene. The culinary scene is super developed and the fashion, you know the Tel Aviv fashion week, and the museums. We feel it, yes. We feel the tremendous impact of this declaration (of Tel Aviv as best gay travel destination) on the demand, yes," Avigad said.
Tel Aviv is often referred to in Israel as "the bubble." Some see its abundance of art galleries, cafes, clubs and bohemian jive as a bastion of secular pluralism. Others condemn it as a hedonistic island detached from reality.