CYRENE, Libya – From thousands of miles of pristine Mediterranean coastline, to sweeping desert sand dunes and ancient ruins that rival Greece and Italy, Libya has a lot to offer travelers looking for a rare, off-the-beaten-path destination — but obstacles remain.
U.N. sanctions kept tourists from visiting this North African country for more than a decade. Now the former pariah state best known for its eccentric leader, Moammar Gadhafi, is slowly opening its doors as it tries to shed its rogue state status.
A new airport is in the works for the capital of Tripoli. The national airline, Afriqiyah Airways, is buying new Airbus planes, and one of Gadhafi’s sons has announced a sweeping plan to promote eco-tourism in the pine-and-olive-tree-filled Green Mountains in northeastern Libya, saying it was time for the oil-dominated country to diversify its economy.
“Libya used to be just oil, but now we have another way for the future – tourism. And Libya is still virgin,” said Ibris Saleh Abdussalam, a Libyan tour guide.
Despite the plans and promises, however, tourists seeking a convenience-filled, luxury vacation should beware. Libya’s tourism industry is still far behind its Mediterranean neighbors. ATMs are scarce and often unreliable, the decor of many hotels is straight out of the 1970s.
And forget about having a glass a wine with dinner. Alcohol is forbidden in Libya, even in Tripoli’s high-end Corinthia Bab Africa hotel.
“Libya has tremendous potential. … But Libya is still in its infancy and needs to develop infrastructure and facilities,” said Amr Abdel-Ghaffar, of the U.N. World Tourism Organization in Madrid.
Once the United States’ sworn enemy, Libya is embarking on a political and economic U-turn that includes boosting its tourism industry.
The change of heart began in 2003, when U.N. sanctions were abruptly lifted after 11 years when Gadhafi announced he was dismantling his nuclear weapons program and took responsibility for the 1988 bombing of a Pam Am plane over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Last year, the State Department removed Libya from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and reopened its embassy for the first time since 1979, when a mob attacked and set fire to the mission.
But obstacles – including government red tape – remain in this country where Gadhafi has ruled with an iron fist for more than three decades and outsiders have traditionally not been welcome.
Proof that Libya has a long way to go is in the numbers. According to the U.N. tourism agency, less than 1 percent of Libya’s GDP came from tourism with only 149,000 tourists visiting in 2004, the last year the country provided statistics. Compare that to neighboring Egypt, which hosted about 9 million tourists last year.
“Libya is into the hundreds of thousands of tourists versus millions in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt,” said Rajeev Singh-Molares, a director at the Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting firm Monitor Group, which helped write a report on Libya’s economy in 2006.
Just getting inside Libya might be the most difficult part of the journey, especially if you’re American.
U.S. passport holders can’t apply for a tourist visa in the U.S. and must send their application to a Libyan embassy elsewhere, such as Canada. The visas take months to process and usually require a letter of invitation from a tour operator in Libya. Even if all the paperwork is completed months ahead of time, the visa rules are subject to change without notice and U.S. citizens are often “blocked without warning,” the State Department warns.
Libya also won’t issue a visa to anyone whose passport bears a stamp showing travel to Israel.
Kenneth Jackson, a customer service agent with the U.S.-based Zierer Visa Service, said most of the Americans who apply for Libyan tourist visas through his company are traveling on Mediterranean cruises. Though a majority who apply receive a visa, many Americans chose to stay onboard the ship when it docks in Tripoli rather than deal with the visa hassle, he said.
Visa regulations are less strict for Europeans, but as with Americans, they are usually required to travel as part of a group with a government-approved agency.
“The biggest problem is Libyan bureaucracy. … And they’re erratic. Suddenly deciding they aren’t going to admit Americans just as a cruise ship with Americans on board is about to arrive is not a good way to develop tourism,” Tony Wheeler, a co-founder of Lonely Planet travel guidebooks, said via e-mail from Australia. Lonely Planet issued its first book solely dedicated to Libya in 2002 and a second edition was released last year.
Once inside, Libyans are welcoming, often giving curious looks and friendly “hellos” to Westerners. And the sites — both natural and manmade — are spectacular.
On the northwestern coast, about 75 miles east of Tripoli, is Leptis Magna, among the most significant cities of the Roman Empire and one of five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Libya. The well-preserved ancient limestone city features towering columns and arches, temples, a theater and bathhouses.
On the opposite side of the country — the northeastern coast — sits Cyrene, an ancient Greek city founded in 631 B.C. Vast ruins including temples, forums and theaters sit on cliffs here overlooking the virtually untouched Mediterranean coast.
Then there is the great Sahara Desert, which covers more than 90 percent of the country. Among its many features is the small oasis city of Ghadames, which was one of the most notable stops on the ancient Sahara trade routes. Farther south is the mountain range of Jebel Acacus, home to the indigenous Tuareg people and prehistoric rock art that dates back 12,000 years.
Tourist Gerd Juetting, who in September traveled to Libya with about a dozen others as part of a German tour group, believes the time is now to see Libya, despite the hassles and lack of infrastructure.
“People would ask us, ‘Why Libya?’ ” said Juetting, as he looked at ancient marble statues of Greek gods at a small museum in Cyrene. “But the only way to see Roman and Greek settlements from back then is to come. … We now hope we can go back home and tell people about this.”
If you go
Go: For ancient ruins and desert scenery in a destination once off-limits to Americans
Getting there: Several foreign airlines, such as British Airways, Lufthansa, Alitalia and KLM, fly to Tripoli from their European hub cities.
UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites: http://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/ly
Visas: Americans must apply for visas through Libyan embassies outside the U.S. The visas take months to process and usually require a letter of invitation from a tour operator in Libya. Libya won’t issue a visa to anyone whose passport bears a stamp showing travel to Israel.
Guidebook: Lonely Planet’s “Libya” by Anthony Ham (July 2007, $25.99); www.lonelyplanet.com/worldguide/destinations/africa/libya.
Worth seeing: Must-sees in Libya, according to Lonely Planet’s Ham:
The Roman ruins of Leptis Magna, northwestern Libya: Ham calls these well-preserved limestone ruins “simply the finest and most extravagant Roman city in the southern Mediterranean.”
The ancient Greek city of Cyrene, northeastern Libya: Vast ruins that date back more than 2,500 years in the Green Mountains, many on cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
The Sahara Desert town of Ghadames, western Libya: Ham calls this the “most extraordinary and extensive oasis town left in the Sahara” because of its labyrinth of covered lanes and traditional architecture.
The Sahara Desert’s Ubari Lakes, in west-central Libya: Palm-fringed lakes hidden amid the desert’s dunes in a sand sea the size of Switzerland.
Jebel Acacus, southwestern Libya: A mountain range that features prehistoric rock paintings and carvings.
The Libyan capital of Tripoli: Ham describes the city of 1.7 million as one “North Africa’s most agreeable cities, with a world-class museum, marvelous medina and cosmopolitan air.”