May 15, 2006

Sun, Sea and Mystery: Libya Looks to Lure Tourists

By Ahmed Seif and William Maclean

TRIPOLI, Libya -- Most vacationers seeking a north African break tend to think of Morocco's exquisite medieval cities or the beaches of sun-kissed Tunisia.

And that's usually only after ticking Egypt and its ancient wonders off their "Seen That" list.

But Libya? Africa's fourth-largest country remains an unusual destination: Outsiders still tend to associate it with defiance of the West and international disputes about terrorism.

However, the country on the Mediterranean's southern shores is expecting steady growth in tourism as a thaw in ties between the West and leader Muammar Gaddafi erodes years of isolation.

Conventional travelers' wisdom says the best time to visit exotic places is before everyone discovers them.

Corinna, a French visitor, was glad she beat the crowds.

"It is beautiful to come here now," she said, gazing in awe at a Roman statue in Tripoli's Al-Saraya al-Hamra museum, one of the jewels of a heritage as little known to European travelers as Egypt's is familiar.

"The people (in Europe) think that this country is really closed. But now it is open for all people."

If ancient Roman and Greek ruins do not appeal, there are prehistoric desert sites and a fledgling scuba diving sector along Libya's unspoiled 1,250-mile coastline.

"If Libya got its act together, it could be a tourism world beater," said Rajeev Singh-Molares, one of the authors of a report on the Libyan economy by Monitor Group consultants and Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA).

"Libya has extraordinary assets, and by that I mean not only the Roman and Greek ruins but also the beach and desert."


Tourism has begun stirring thanks to politics: Libya cast off more than a decade of international ostracism in 2003 when it accepted responsibility and began paying compensation for the bombing of airliners over Scotland and Niger in 1988 and 1989.

Progress will not be rapid, however. The Soviet-style economy is hampered by stifling bureaucracy, archaic banks, a weak private sector and a reluctance to issue visas rapidly.

Oil-dependent Libya receives just 300,000 visitors annually, just 0.5 percent of the total number of tourists visiting Middle East and North African countries, the Monitor/CERA report said.

That compares poorly to the almost 6 million people who visit Morocco and Tunisia each year. And it may be generations before Libya can compete seriously with world tourism heavyweight Egypt, which gets 8.5 million visitors annually.

But the potential is there.

Libya showed a little of what it can do in March when it welcomed 7,000 mostly Western visitors from 53 nationalities to view a solar eclipse.

The event was meant to stir interest in Libya, which hopes its isolation during almost two decades of sanctions for alleged past support of terrorism may have given it a touch of mystery.

It also hopes tourism can help tackle unemployment, running at up to 30 percent according to unofficial estimates.


The country plans to build a series of tourism complexes on the coast, having won investment commitments of $3 billion in 2005 alone, according to the authorities.

But many suspect red tape may make most investors wary.

"The fundamental problem that Libya has today is getting things to work," Singh-Molares said. "That's where the focus has to be in terms of modernizing the economy."

"It has to be on administrative reform, it has to be on education reform, monetary policy reform, banking system reform -- the kind of nuts-and-bolts fundamentals."

"It's so difficult to get visas to go into the country: there's no point talking about reform if it takes 45 days to approve a tourist visa. That's got to change."

Some "fast track" processing has been started for large groups of tourists traveling with approved operators.

But experts say visa curbs will continue to handicap Libya in a region where rivals Morocco and Tunisia issue visas to European Union member nationals on arrival.

Training and language skills are sorely lacking in hotels, and the Monitor/CERA report identified only one international standard hotel in the entire country.

Entrepreneur Abdurrahman Yedder, who is based in Ghadames, one of the Sahara's oldest cities, said tourism was being held back by a lack of experience in service industries and a reluctance among Libyans to do menial work.

"The future of tourism is bright: we are concentrating on the infrastructure," he said. "But Libyans want to give orders to other people," he added, referring to foreign guest workers from nearby countries such as Egypt.

"It's very rare to see a waitress come to clean the table and the toilets. Always others -- Egyptians -- must do it."