One of the first sights that greet new arrivals at Tripoli International Airport is an imposing portrait of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi wearing his trademark military sunglasses and a lustrous robe. Only a few years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that some of those deboarding in the Libyan capital would be American tourists coming to see what this enigmatic country has to offer.
Let’s face it: the prevailing image of Libya held by most outsiders is hardly one of an inviting tourist destination. The country only emerged from international sanctions in 2003, after it settled the infamous Lockerbie bombing case, and is still considered to be something of an amusing pariah on the global diplomatic stage.
But for someone like myself, who struggles in vain to understand why more than six million people every year choose to spend their holidays in Dubai, Libya seems to hold plenty of tricks up its sleeve if it wants to take on its regional competitors and attract European visitors.
In many ways, it’s perfectly placed to become the next big thing in Mediterranean tourism. Next-door neighbors Tunisia and Egypt have already shown that it is possible to develop massive tourist industries which play a crucial role in the local economy and create thousands of jobs. Morocco has done the same. Algeria has bags of potential, but for now is simply too unpredictable to attract all but the most adventurous of travelers.
But Libya has arguably more to offer than all of these places. For a start, it’s safe, stable and within a stone’s throw of Europe. It also boasts a staggering variety of world-class attractions. The old Roman city at Leptis Magna is a UN World Heritage Site and even in Italy would be classed as a prime tourist attraction. On the eastern coastline is the Jebel Akhdar, a verdant mountainous peninsula which tumbles down spectacularly into pristine beaches and clean waters close to the ancient Greek site of Cyrene.
Covering most of the country is the Sahara, which is the top lure for many visitors. The vast expanses of awesome sand dunes in southern and western Libya, dotted with idyllic oases and ancient rock art, are virtually incomparable — with perhaps the exception of neighboring Algeria.
And then, of course, you’ve got the Gaddafi factor, which I would personally rank amongst Libya’s most valuable tourist assets. Not only is his face omnipresent in Tripoli, appearing in some form or other on most of the city’s billboard, but you can also buy a whole gamut of celebratory merchandise including t-shirts, baseball caps, posters and even watches. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but there’s something pleasingly self-knowing about that: you get the impression that if the Great Leader really took himself so seriously, the police would have shut down the kitsch-sellers long ago.
Despite the wealth of things to see, the government seems to be taking a somewhat contradictory approach to encouraging visitors. On the one hand, the tourism ministry has identified more than 60 sites along the coast which it wants to develop with foreign partners, and is targeting three million tourists by 2010. That’s almost triple the meager number who visited in 2007.
Other things, though, make you wonder whether the Libyans are really that serious about the tourist sector at all. Last year, the immigration authorities suddenly altered the entry visa regulations and demanded that all non-Arab passport holders carry a certified Arabic translation of their passport. Something of a communication breakdown ensued, to the extent that tourists were simply turned away from Tripoli’s port and airport. A group of French tourists were apparently stranded in the country, while European cruise ships were even turned back from the port, subsequently prompting the operators to remove Tripoli from their itineraries and deprive the country of thousands of high-spending visitors.
Another issue is alcohol. Clearly, with its blanket ban on booze, Libya isn’t going to attract the Mediterranean party set, and those rules aren’t necessarily going to be eased any time soon. But then Libya doesn’t want to be Tunisia, with its low-grade package tourism aimed at the kind of tourists who don’t leave their hotel during a week’s holiday.
There’s a long way to go then, but drive around Tripoli and you see evidence that people have faith. Dozens of small hotels are sprouting up, attracted by tax incentives and the rising number of tour groups passing through the capital before heading south to the desert. There are Sheraton and Intercontinental hotels on the way, with more international brands expected to compete in what is presently a very lucrative market.
So if Libya gets its act together and provides its attractions with the promotion they deserve — including the Gaddafi-themed souvenirs — then it could well give the more established Middle East tourist destinations a run for their money.
Alex Warren is a Dubai-based freelance
consultant and writer.