Why the BBC were wrong to pick Tel Aviv as the best city for expats

Deutsche Welle
8 Min Read

It is a vibrant city with great beaches, fantastic food and a lively night life. But Tel Aviv and its residents are also facing major problems that make the city almost impossible to live in.
In recent years, Tel Aviv’s residents have become accustomed to hearing more languages than just Hebrew in the streets – whether from tourists, businessmen or migrants.

Now, the BBC has revealed the secret of the magic that has drawn foreigners to the city in an article published under the headline “Is this the best beach city for expats?”

The article quotes workers in financial and legal institutions in Tel Aviv, with one of them even wondering “why I was spending all my time sitting in an office in New York.”

The report states that Tel Aviv is the new star of tourist guides around the world and has been named as #/beach-barcelona-spain_21757_600x450.jpg:one of the best beach cities# by National Geographic, the best gay travel destination by gaycities.com and an outstanding culinary destination by Saveur Magazine.

The article praises Tel Aviv’s “business atmosphere,” while the interviewees are glowing in their recommendations of this lively and technologically advanced city. Even investments of foreign funds receive extensive coverage, along with the successes of local start-ups such as Waze.

Several downsides

However, even such a eulogistic account cannot ignore the extremely high living expenses in the city – which strike both locals and foreigners as disproportionate.

Tel Aviv is the sixth fastest-growing city in the Middle East and Africa, with visitors estimated to spend $1.5 billion there in 2015 (about 1.3 billion euros), according to the MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index. Yet a report by Mercer ranks the city as the most expensive for expatriates in the Middle East and the 18th most expensive in the world.

The article does not ignore that ranking, but it does disregard other key factors that make life in Tel Aviv extremely difficult.

A complicated public transport system, refugees in its southern neighborhoods and construction works associated with the newly-built light rail are only a few of the challenges facing the city’s residents.

Money matters

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the monthly rent for a 1.5-room flat in Tel Aviv in 2013 was about 4,075 NIS (roughly $1,044, or 940 euros) on average, compared to 2,296 NIS ($588, or 525 euros) in 2007 – an increase of 77 percent.

To this amount, one should also add bills and public transport costs, which add up to thousands per year.

With an average monthly salary of the equivalent of about 2,000 euros before taxes, many expats will have to reduce their standard of living, or work remotely for foreign companies, where they will likely earn higher salaries than they would at an Israeli firm.

“It’s not easy to make it in Tel Aviv,” says one interviewee in the BBC’s article, “but this is the kind of place where, if you really assert yourself, the sky’s the limit.” Like many others, after realizing he would take a 50 percent pay cut to work, he decided to open his own company rather than be employed.

One should also keep in mind that all of this is possible only with a work permit, which is rarely given for long periods of time, let alone to expats without an Israeli passport. The ones who do get a work visa are able to do so usually based on their Jewish heritage.

Even the beer prices in Tel Aviv are skyrocketing. A 330ml bottle bought at a supermaket would cost 7.9 NIS ($2 or 1.81 euros) and a glass of the same capacity at a bar would cost 36.5 NIS ($9.3 or 8.4 euros). This makes the city the third priciest in the world, beaten only by Geneva and Hong Kong.

Refugees in its south

Israel in general does not accept asylum seekers into its territories, and the ones who are caught crossing the border are put in a special prison, sometimes for almost two years, until they are granted with a temporary resident permit or deported back to their countries.

Still, an estimated of 30,000 out of the 45,000 refugees living in Israel have settled in Tel Aviv, most of them illegally. They are concentrated in the southern, poorer neighborhoods of the city, which sparks constant clashes with locals.

“Why us and not Ramat Aviv?” (a wealthy part of northern Tel Aviv), Israeli demonstrators flocking to the streets are asking, calling for the burden to be divided more equally between neighborhoods.

These tensions often persuade expats to live in more central parts of the city, resulting in higher demands for flats there and higher rents – also for locals.

Finally: light rail

It took Tel Aviv more than 15 years to start working on its light rail system – the first and only one in the country. The idea is great, but many streets and junctions are about to be closed for periods of between five to seven years – if everything goes as planned.

This makes it even harder to commute in and out of the city, let alone inside it. Due to lack of an undergound system, morning traffic can mean 45 to 60 minute rides inside the city alone.

Many offices are now finding creative solutions to tackle the problem, building showers, renting bicycles and making appointments in clients’ houses instead of forcing them to enter Tel Aviv.

Some tenants woke up one day to the realization that their apartment will now be in the middle of a construction site for the next couple of years, with all the dirt and noise that entails. There will be no tax breaks or compensation from the state.

“The Bubble”

Tel Aviv is not a bad city to live in. It has spectacular beaches, a lot of cultural activities, a big university and night life. Museums, galleries, art and fashion are all there to be had, and one could never have enough time to cover all that the city has to offer. It is often referred to by Israelis as “The Bubble,” and its residents as “spoilt espresso drinkers.”

However – and it’s a big however – even more than other major cities in the world, it requires not only huge amounts of money, but also privileges one can sometimes only be born with, e.g. being Jewish, and that’s without even mentioning the political situation in the country, with wars raging merely 50 kilometers away.

It is no coincidence that some of Israel’s most talented, educated youngsters are packing their stuff and moving to Berlin. Sometimes just having reliably pleasant weather is not enough.

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