TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Less than an hour away but a world apart from traditional places of pilgrimage in the Holy Land, Israel's free-wheeling city of Tel Aviv has become a Mediterranean hotspot for gay tourism.
"Tel Aviv is hot right now because it's unique," said Adir Steiner, who coordinates gay pride events for the city.
"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 will not obviously find an open city like Tel Aviv," he 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 small enough to be intimate but big enough to absorb hundreds of thousands of tourists every year...we're cosmopolitan, we're very Western, European and American but on the other hand we're very much into the Middle Eastern warmth and welcoming, and this combination attracts," Avigad said.
At The Block club, a blond drag queen twirled and bopped as the vampire-fanged DJ spun his records. Loudspeakers pumped out pop hits and under a mirrorball, the men took to the dancefloor.
"I fell in love with the city," said Iliya Sheirtz, a tourist from Berlin who took part in the midnight festivities "In the summertime, in the wintertime, it doesn't matter, you have the beach here, the sun and a lot of great parties, a lot better than Berlin," Sheirtz said.
This month Tel Aviv won best city on an American Airlines and a GayCities.com contest, sweeping past New York, Berlin and San Francisco with 43 percent of the votes. Russell Lord, travel consultant who specializes in gay tourism, said he has been flooded with requests since.
Israeli authorities do not have exact figures for the number of gay tourists who visit, but Steiner said international attendance at Tel Aviv's annual pride events was up 25 percent last summer.
Lord said the itinerary he designs for his gay tourists has all the sites one would find on the "regular" tourist trail through the Holy Land, but with a gay twist.
"At the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial (in Jerusalem) I make sure the guide will also speak about the (Nazi) persecution of homosexuals," he said.
Lord said that Tel Aviv, about a 50-minute drive from Jerusalem, "is close to all the tourist sites so it serves as the base and at the end of the day they go back there for the night life."
At Tel Aviv's Evita club it was Eurovision song contest night. Swedish hits and red lights flashing prompted some to dance while others sipped their cocktails. British tourist Tom Berry, 27, said it was his first time in Israel.
"(Tel Aviv) is a great city, I can't compare it to any other city. There's a vibe about it, it's different. A small city that acts big. A lot of variety in restaurants, cafes, shops, markets and the people are from all different backgrounds," he said.
Tel Aviv is often referred to in Israel as "the bubble," a city far different from Jerusalem, where ultra-Orthodox Jews in their traditional black garb make up a quarter of the population.
Some see its abundance of art galleries, cafes, clubs and bohemian jive as a bastion of secular pluralism. Others condemn it as an island of hedonism detached from a reality that includes gender separation on buses serving religious neighborhoods in parts of the country.
In Tel Aviv the sight of a gay couple walking down the street hand in hand is fairly common. "Ours is a city in which everyone can be proud of who they are," Mayor Ron Huldai said after the GayCities.com contest winner was announced.
Steiner said gay tourism has become a growing market internationally. "Billions of dollars are spent around the world ... each gay tourist coming into Tel Aviv is spending a lot of money, going to good restaurants going to theater, the opera."
Israel's Tourism Ministry, along with Tel Aviv's municipality launched a campaign three years ago aimed at boosting rainbow tourism. "Gay tourists spend more money and are trend setting," said Pini Shani, director of the ministry's Overseas Department.
Back at The Block, the Holy Wigs drag queen ensemble was preparing to take the stage. Wearing a red dress and blond wig, drag queen Ziona Patriot said part of Tel Aviv's allure was its freshness. 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.
Additional reporting by Rami Amichai; Writing by Maayan Lubell, editing by Paul Casciato