Libya eyes post-war tourism boom

RICH HISTORY: Tourists can wander around Apollonia near the ancient Greek and Roman city of Cyrene, in Sousa city, Eastern Libya.
RICH HISTORY: Tourists can wander around Apollonia near the ancient Greek and Roman city of Cyrene, in Sousa city, Eastern Libya.

A holiday in Libya may sound like an absurdity now, but many of the country's tour operators and officials are already starting to predict a bright future for the travel industry once the dust of war settles.

The coastal country has all the makings for a vibrant tourism business, they say: warm weather, beaches, antiquities and proximity to Europe – all factors that helped the industry thrive in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia.

If developed, tourism could eventually help dent Libya's high jobless rate by creating work for tour guides, drivers, restaurant workers and hotel staff, as well as help it diversify its economy away from dependency on oil and gas.

The fact that operators are thinking about resuming business at all – some predicted tourists would start arriving again within a year – testifies to the relative peace that has prevailed in Tripoli and other parts of Libya since the former rebels ousted Muammar Gaddafi's forces from the capital in August.

One Tripoli-based company, Sherwes Travel, already advertises a three-day, 295 tour of "post-war Libya" on its website, featuring visits to sites in Tripoli and to the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna. Employees admit it may be a bit optimistic.

Ibrahim Usta, the company's self-described international customer assistant, said while some potential visitors had been in touch, it was not yet possible to bring them to Libya. "The problem is mainly security and visas," he said. "There's no [visa] system in place and many embassies are not functioning."

Usta and others said tourism was languishing before the revolt because of apathy, incompetence, complex visa requirements, draconian police oversight and mercurial regulations under Gaddafi's government.

Sabri Ellotai, manager of Sabri Tours and Travel, described bringing a group of Germans in 2009 only to have them turned away at the airport because they did not have an Arabic translation for their passports – a requirement he had never heard of before.

He and others said they hoped the country's new rulers – currently represented by the interim National Transitional Council (NTC) – would be able to do more with the industry when the war was over.

NTC forces are still fighting to take over Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte and a few other bastions of Gaddafi loyalists, which has impeded efforts to set up effective government nationwide and restart oil production.

There is plenty of evidence of the lax oversight at the ancient Greek colony of Cyrene, which was featured in the chronicler Herodotus' The Histories and is now a Unesco world heritage site, in the eastern Jebel al-Akhdar region. The site is overgrown with weeds and has graffiti etched onto one of its old columns.

A renovation crew of Italians, Americans and French fled after the uprising started, guards there said.

Jamal Salem, 50, sitting in the afternoon sun outside a souvenir shop filled with woven baskets, photographs and ceramic statues, said there weren't many visitors even before the revolt. "A lot of people think Libyans are terrorists, and so they're afraid of coming here. We hope the picture will become clearer now, and that things will get better."

Others lingering in the area of Cyrene said they also hoped the revolt would help stamp out what they saw as widespread corruption and regional favouritism in the industry.

"Before, companies had their headquarters in Tripoli. They brought the cars from Tripoli, they brought the translators from Tripoli, everything. Nobody here benefited from it at all," Hussein Saleh, who volunteers to help guard Cyrene, said.

Others near Cyrene and other sites said they also hoped a new government would show more interest in preserving relics.

"We're expecting a better future, and maybe more interest in renovating the antiquities," said Muftah Mabrook, a 35-year-old researcher at the ancient Greek port of Apollonia, a picturesque collection of ruins set against the sea.

While such ambitions are running high, it's too soon to say how the situation will turn out.

Tripoli's atmospheric old city is slowly coming back to life as jewellery shops and cafes reopen in its winding streets, for instance, but many alleys are still littered with bullet casings.

In some areas, young men with Kalashnikov assault rifles sit smoking and chatting on stoops or around street corners. They smile and wave at foreign passers-by, but their presence is not likely to encourage most holidaymakers.

The relative lack of English and French language speakers, as well as the ban on alcohol, may also make it hard for Libya to compete on a large scale with Egypt and Tunisia, even after the war is finished, some say.

But Usta, like many others, was confident the industry would eventually thrive. "We have the desert, we have the sea, we have mountains. We just need the right people in the right place."

The Dominion Post