Watch: First countries qualify for Eurovision final, with Madonna still determined to take the stage
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Watch: First countries qualify for Eurovision final, with Madonna still determined to take the stage

Israel cashes in on tourism

The Eurovision Song Contest kicked off in Tel Aviv on Tuesday when 10 countries qualified from the first semi-final.

They are Greece, Belarus, Serbia, Cyprus, Estonia, Czech Republic, Australia, Iceland, San Marino and Slovenia.

The second semi-final, in which Malta will feature with young singer Michela, takes place on Thursday.

READ: Malta could stun all at the Eurovision

The final is on Saturday. 

Defiant Madonna determined to perform in Eurovision final

Pop icon Madonna has insisted she will perform at the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest despite calls to boycott her for playing in Israel.

"I'll never stop playing music to suit someone's political agenda nor will I stop speaking out against violations of human rights wherever in the world they may be," the singer said, in a statement carried by US media.

Madonna's producers said in April the star would sing the Grand Finale of the music contest in Tel Aviv, which was designated the host city after Israeli singer Netta Barzilai won in Portugal last year.

But Madonna's participation unleashed a storm of protests from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has for years been pushing for investors and artists to shun Israel for its decades-long occupation of Palestinian territories.

"My heart breaks every time I hear about the innocent lives that are lost in this region and the violence that is so often perpetuated to suit the political goals of people who benefit from this ancient conflict," said the legendary performer, whose string of hits in the 1980s and 90s included "Material Girl" and "Like a Virgin."

"I hope and pray that we will soon break free from this terrible cycle of destruction and create a new path towards peace."

However, the Eurovision organizers said the 60-year-old's participation was not yet signed and sealed, and that the final contract for her participation had yet to be finalized. 

"We are in a situation now that is a bit strange," said Eurovision's executive supervisor, Jon Ola Sand, at a news conference in Tel Aviv. 

"We have an artist who would like to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest, and who we would love to welcome on that stage, but for that we need to have the framework secured. If there is no signed contract this week, she will not be on the stage."

Israeli media said preparations for the star's performance were going ahead as scheduled, with a first shipment of equipment having arrived in Israel on Monday. 

Madonna and her entourage of 135 people, including the rapper KoVu, 40 backing singers, 25 dancers and a team of technicians, were expected to fly in on Wednesday, according to reports citing the Israeli-Canadian billionaire Sylvan Adams, said by the press to be footing a large part of the bill to bring Madonna to perform in Israel. 

Tel Aviv eyes tourism boon with 'amazing' Eurovision week

Meanwhile, Israel is cashing in on tourism associated with the contest.

On Monday, just a day before the first round of semi-finals began in a nearby convention centre, downtown Tel Aviv was bustling with a Eurovision vibe.

On the elegant Rothschild Boulevard, volunteers with purple t-shirts and matching hats were providing Eurovision tourists with booklets and information about the city and competition venues.

A short distance away, a group was gathering for a free walking tour of the city's LGBT landmarks, operated by Sandeman which had broadened its normal Tel Aviv repertoire for Eurovision week.  

On the sandy beach below the Hilton hotel, Laszlo Lukacs was enjoying the afternoon sun and breeze on a recliner.

To Lukacs, a Zurich-based Hungarian in software sales, the Israeli venue was an interesting twist in the Eurovision plot.

"It's super exciting for us Europeans to come here," said Lukacs, who has followed Eurovision to each host country for the past six years.

"Is this Europe, talking about Eurovision, is it the Middle East, all these different religions mixing here," he said.

While Tel Aviv was expensive, Lukacs said its residents were "super helpful so far and very nice, very friendly people."

"So far it's a very positive and interesting experience," he added.

Stretching eastward from the Mediterranean, Israel's economic and cultural centre likes to boast of its beaches, vibrant nightlife, ancient quarters and rich culinary and cultural scene.

Tel Aviv's pluralistic nature -- it hosts the largest Gay Pride event in the region -- stands in contrast not only to neighbouring Arab states but even other Israeli cities such as Jerusalem.

While Israel's 2018 Eurovision victory with Netta Barzilai's "Toy" meant the Jewish state would host the next year, Tel Aviv was not handed the boon on a silver platter. 

Israeli politicians initially insisted that Jerusalem host the event, backing down only after objections by ultra-Orthodox politicians over the finals being held close to the Jewish Sabbath.

Pressures by pro-Palestinian activists and artists to boycott the Israeli event loomed in the background, and tensions with Gaza, culminating in a flareup earlier this month affecting southern Israel, threatened to disrupt the event. 

- 'Like a wedding' -
Eytan Schwartz, CEO of Tel Aviv Global who was tasked with preparing the city for Eurovision tourists, said hundreds of people had been working around the clock for nine month for the event.

"We prepared for this like a wedding," he said on the backdrop of a Eurovision banner outside the municipality building, which at nights illuminates its front with the flags of countries participating in the Eurovision.

This year 41 nations are competing, with Dutch singer Duncan Laurence favourite to win according to a survey of bookmakers by independent fan website Eurovision World. 

Preparing for the competition included training hotel staff, taxi and bus drivers, setting up a small army of volunteers and preparing accessible information for visitors, Schwartz said.

While the 10,000 tourists in town for Eurovision do not represent a large quantity for a major European city, in small Tel Aviv -- with under half a million residents -- you "feel them all around the city."

A beachside Eurovision Village has been set up for live performances, with booths selling food and merchandise, as well as the Eurovision exhibitions and installations.

For Tel Aviv, the Eurovision was "a platform to examine all our challenges as a small city and take us up a level as far as our abilities to absorb tourists," Schwartz said.

The unusual international exposure could also help position Tel Aviv as a venue for conferences and even sports events, he added.

The heavy media presence and global attention on the city "is a gift that Netta gave us," Schwartz said.

At the Eurovision Village, visitor Chris Walker said the competition -- wed with the city known for its party scene -- would make "an unmissable event."

"Everyone's so friendly, everybody's willing to help you any chance they can," the Scotland native said over blaring speakers.

Travelling with Walker, Daniel said he'd been following Eurovision from Chile for the past seven years.

"This year I decided -- why not go to Tel Aviv, which is a city I've always wanted to visit, so here I am, waiting for the show to start," he said, praising the warm weather and people.

"Everyone speaks English and everyone is nice and so far it's been really amazing," he said.

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