Tourists enjoy a break in the spectacular surroundings of the Egyptian desert of Gilf Kebir. In a few years' time similar sights could be familiar across the border in Libya.
Libya steps up its tourist industry
MICHAEL THEODOULOU (The Scotsman, March 29, 2004)
IT IS perhaps the last unspoilt corner of the Mediterranean, with mile upon mile of sun-drenched beaches and stunning Roman and Greek ruins - all without a package holiday-maker in sight. But probably not for long.
Libya is hoping to cash-in on last week's historic handshake between Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, and the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, by persuading millions of British, European and United States holiday-makers to visit.
In 2000, the last year for which figures are available, only 2,525 UK tourists travelled to Libya - part of a European total of just over 34,000. A US travel ban to the north African country ensured the total number of travellers from the Americas was less than 1,000.
However, those figures are expected to change rapidly as tourists realise what Libya has to offer.
Its foremost tourist site is Leptis Magna, the ruins of a Roman city with cobbled streets and an amphitheatre within driving distance of the capital, Tripoli.
Leptis Magna rivalled Rome in wealth, architecture and magnificence in the late second and early third centuries AD. Under the emperor Septimus Severus, it had a population of 90,000, two theatres, a sports complex, temples, shops and a market for wild animals captured in Africa to ship to Rome.
There are also striking Greek ruins near Libya's border with Egypt.
Antiquities and pristine beaches aside, Libya offers rugged mountains and oasis towns in the beautiful landscape of the desert Sahara interior where some of the greatest battles of the Second World War were staged.
The Lonely Planet guide says that while the country has a "scary reputation", most people have "a grand old time". The respected guide says Libyan people "enjoy a well-earned reputation for kindness and hospitality towards visitors, and its streets and souks are free of the hassles of touts and their hard sell".
As with most authoritarian Arab states, there is also very little crime and under the rehabilitated Col Gaddafi, Libya is considered a safe destination.
US tour companies are planning to take groups to Libya in May and October, taking in the Roman ruins of Sabratha and Leptis Magna, Travcoa, Tripoli's Jamahiriya Museum and the Greek cities of Cyrene and Apollonia.
One British company is currently negotiating a contract to build a 500-hectare tourist complex that will include golf courses, a luxury marina and fitness clubs. It is just the tip of the iceberg. The Trade Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, announced yesterday that the trade minister, Mike O'Brien, will visit Tripoli next month.
"He'll take some businessmen with him and there are all kinds of opportunities for trade between Libya and Britain - not least in areas like health and education and tourism," she said.
The British Council will also be opening an office in Libya to develop cultural and educational links.
Exodus, a tour company which specialises in holidays off the beaten path, said there was evidence to suggest tourists wanted to visit the country.
Speaking to the BBC, the company's group manager, Andrew Appleyard, said his company was planning to send six organised trips to the country this year. "I can really see it taking off as a tourist destination," he said.
However, there are downsides for the Western tourist. Visitors must be happy to give their livers a holiday and not object to keeping plenty of clothes on in public. Alcohol and bikinis are taboo, in line with Islamic precepts.
"Wine and drugs are total destruction weapons," warns a sign at the airport in Tripoli, which was only re-opened to international flights in 1998 after several years of United Nations sanctions.
When the first foreign cruise ship arrived a few years ago, Libyan authorities went aboard and sealed all the mini-bars.
But Libya is willing to go far to boost tourism - which it describes as its greatest untapped natural resource - and some officials do not rule out the possibility that having a tipple might be legalised. As for the dress code, Libyans point out it is not particularly strict. Unlike in Iran or Saudi Arabia, for example, there is no problem with men and women wearing shorts in summer.
A thriving tourist trade could generate many badly needed jobs to employ Libya's rapidly expanding population.
But attracting investment to turn the rickety tourism sector into a multi-billion pound industry as neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt have done might be more of a challenge.
Col Gaddafi's little green book does not always make encouraging reading.
"The recognition of profit is an acknowledgement of exploitation," it asserts.
Foreign investors are particularly keen for firmer legal protection in a country which has, until now, followed a semi-socialist path. "Companies interested in investing in Libya will want to be certain that the legal framework will protect their interests there," says Bill Farren-Price, Mediterranean editor of the Middle East Economic Survey.
There is also a need for more and better hotels. Restaurants, roads and airports will have to be built too if Libya is become a major tourist destination.
"If it wants to boost its tourism sector, Libya will need major investment in the hotel sector," Mr Farren-Price said. "It's already started with a brand new hotel that just opened in the last six months, owned by a Maltese group in Tripoli, but the other hotels are all state-owned."
Finally, the country will have to develop a culture of customer service if it is to compete with Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.