In these past few years, Tel Aviv has become a major tourist destination, attracting over 2.5 million visitors a year while cementing itself as a global city. Many of these visitors come to Tel Aviv to experience its world-class nightlife and beautiful shores on the Mediterranean coast. However, Tel Aviv is more than its beaches, clubs, and bars. It is a city full of history and rich in culture; a city beaming with hidden treasures off the beaten path, and with a growing creative community which welcomes visitors with open arms. For New Jersey native Ross Belfer, this is the authentic Tel Aviv. Through the tours and activities offered by his concierge company, Eager Tourist, Ross has opened the doors to a distinctive way on how to experience Tel Aviv; one guided by locals and creatives of the city.
1 – Ross, how did you get started in the travel industry, and how did you end up in Tel Aviv?
I was born in New Jersey and raised in New York City. I first came into the travel world in 2008 during my first job as a travel publicist in Manhattan. I always had a fascination with inspiring people, learning about different cultures, and forging new ideas and relationships with individuals beyond my visible radius. The many years I spent in NYC working as a travel publicist paved the way for my future as an entrepreneur and “professional creative.”
In 2011, while working in Tel Aviv for the Israel Tourism Ministry, I began escorting top-tier journalists from around the world. I became their liaison to discover the most authentic and interesting people, places, and experiences in Tel Aviv. These journalists would never have accessed some of the places I took them to without my guidance and expertise of the local scene. This prompted the creation of Eager Tourist as a hyperlocal travel outfitter in Tel Aviv, providing exclusive and original tours, workshops, and experiences in a city lesser-known to most tourists at the time.
Nearly simultaneously, in 2014, I launched the public relations agency, Xhibition, specializing in media relations, content and communications for hotels, architecture, chefs, designers, and artists. Xhibition took off quite quickly, and just a few years later, we opened an office in Manhattan. Today we represent nearly 40 clients spanning four continents. It is my mission to integrate Eager Tourist into Xhibition, to provide added value for our clients, and to keep me stimulated, creatively.
2 – Can you tell us more about Eager Tourist, and what is your mission with this company?
Eager Tourist spawned from the dissatisfaction with what most tour companies were doing and promoting themselves as in Tel Aviv. Slapping on the tagline “live like a local” is so generic these days, and doesn’t provide any authenticity or expertise to the traveler. My lifestyle is truly that of the eager tourist. I go beyond the norms, beyond the sites known by most. I talk to everyone I can when I am abroad, and strive to spark conversations, ideas, and connections. It’s really just a part of my personality that I can be a fly on the wall and integrate myself nearly anywhere. This has come from years of traveling alone and making acquaintances that then become friends.
With Eager Tourist, I try to shatter preconceived notions of a place, and people, while providing added value to all of our guests. This added value is manifested through experiences and connections that otherwise could not be made. By living and breathing Tel Aviv and its various scenes and circles, I’ve forged a path for travelers to access the real heartbeat of the city easily. All of this without being sold on some false concept of “local travel.” My mission is to bring the best of the city to the “doorstep” of my guests, through the various facets of culture (art, dance, photography, food, and architecture).
3 – How many tour experiences does Eager Tourist offer, and which is your favorite and why?
We offer a revolving selection of tours and experiences, our most popular being nightlife and the TLV Markets Excursion. We don’t restrict ourselves to a certain number of options. We only offer what we are inspired by, and it is part of our DNA to keep the integrity of what we are selling.
My favorite tour is the Film Photography Tour. This tour arms our guests with 35mm cameras and teaches them the ropes of analog photography while visiting unique locations, private houses, rooftops, art studios, etc. All of which inspire creativity and an artistic way of seeing the city.
4 – When you are creating a tour experience, and coming up with concepts, what do you feel is the crucial aspect of making an experience a truly memorable one?
The undeniable thread for satisfaction is creating tours that revolve around meeting people, connecting with individuals, and exchanging ideas. That, to me, is the new “luxury travel” — based around authenticity and access instead of materialism and wealth. Many people can pay for a $500/night hotel room. However, how many can spend time with a leading architect who will explain Bauhaus and take you to visit buildings, sites, and interiors that aren’t on the “tourist map?” At the end of the day, a memorable travel experience is all based on the people and the human connection. We do our best to create encounters with local creatives. This always has a positive outcome and results in a great feeling of joy and inspiration.
5 – How involved is Eager Tourist with the creative community of Tel Aviv?
To me, we are one and the same. As a foreigner, I moved to Tel Aviv with two suitcases and just one friend. After years of exploration and connecting, I built a network of creatives that are more than just a community, but my actual friends. We work with our friends and empower them as guides because they truly know Tel Aviv better than anyone. I saw the unique allure of this micro-metropolis on the Mediterranean coast and wanted to connect “Eager Tourists” with those locals who knew more than any tour guide could. That’s the whole basis of our programming.
The creative community of Tel Aviv is very vibrant, dynamic, and open-hearted. Our community of architects, designers, photographers, D.J.s, and musicians is ever-expanding and open to new ideas and encounters. With this mentality, we forged our creative community ranging in disciplines, approaches, and appearances. We love our low-brow street artists just as much as our luxury hoteliers. It’s one and the same as long as there is integrity, good nature, and an appetite for exchange of ideas, and connectivity to others.
6 – Eager Tourist recently launched The Jaffa Gay Vibe Tour, giving visitors an insider’s view into the Jaffa’s Israeli-Arab community. What motivated you to create this tour?
I was motivated from a dissatisfaction for the LGBT tours and programming being sold by Israel/Tel Aviv tour companies. Everything offered was generic, and very much singular in its way of thinking.
In Jaffa, the lines become blurred between culture and sexual orientation. However, there is indeed a distinct community here that identifies as Palestinian and has a lot of love and insight to share with foreigners. Israel is such a stigmatized country and completely misunderstood.
In Jaffa, there is a thriving gay community that deserves attention and the ability to tell its story. We simply create the stage for that, and hope to spark new ideas and bring guests to the forefront of a scene otherwise hidden by the bright-pink, highly marketable gay gourism of Tel Aviv proper.
7 – What do you feel is the most remarkable experience visitors will have while attending this tour?
From entering private art studios and meetings with artists, speaking about life, culture and relationships with our sweet and charming guides, to the feeling that you are being shown around by friends, and not tour guides. We curate our experiences so that they go beyond what is known and advertised, and do so with a white glove that is nearly non-existent in Israel’s travel landscape.
8 – Jaffa is a city full of history. What are some of your favorite cultural spots that travelers can find there?
I always try not to spoil any surprises, but there are some parts of Jaffa completely hidden to tourists that are more interesting, authentic, and inspiring than the known cultural haunts and locales. I can always recommend a stroll through the Ajami neighborhood, which is historically a politically contentious district, but which holds a unique beauty, and for me, a sense of hope that people of different religions, backgrounds and creeds can co-exist.
9 – When we first traveled to Israel, we arrived with certain misconceptions that might have been influenced by the news we see in the West. As a travel expert based in Tel Aviv, what do you feel is the biggest misconception tourists might have when visiting Israel, and what is your advice regarding this?
Paradoxically, Israel is one of the safest places in the world. We have a low level of petty crimes. It’s safe for nearly everyone — men and women — to walk around the streets alone, at any hour of the day. There is a much higher sense of danger while walking around any city in the U.S. than in Israel. That’s a reality, not a misconception.
Israelis deal with harsh realities that the West have been ignorant of, but that is slowly changing. As a pacifist and humanitarian, I can say that many of my peers, friends, and neighbors would agree with the sentiment for peace and pluralism in Israeli society. This is something that doesn’t make the headlines or news articles. We try and expose the beauty of this place, instead of speaking to and about politics. Lord knows there is enough of that type of banter plaguing the headlines in our current climate. So we say, “Spread Love, that’s the Eager Tourist Way.” – GM
To learn more about Israel click here to read more from our first issue of Guild Magazine.