Former US President Ronald Reagan famously described Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi as the “Mad Dog of the Middle East” and a “Looney Tune.” In hindsight, it appears Ronald Reagan’s description was word perfect. During the 1970s and 1980s Libya’s chief export, apart from oil, was terrorism. Libya was a safe haven and training base for just about every major and minor terrorist group in the world.
After 9/11, in order to avoid being targeted by the USA as a supporter of terrorism, 2002 Gaddafi publicly disavowed terrorism and Libyan ambitions to develop weapons of mass destruction. His apparent change of heart was embraced by a clutch of Western leaders including George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Sylvio Berlusconi. The latter two. watching old news media footage of themselves embracing Gaddafi, must be literally cringing with embarrassment although it may be said that Berlusconi will hug just about anyone.
During his 42 years as the iron-fisted ruler of Libya, Gaddafi has always been regarded, even by his erstwhile friends, as an off the wall dictator with an unmistakable look–big hair, Ray Ban sunglasses, outrageous costumes, rambling speeches full of gibberish and his all-female security detail nicknamed the “Gadettes.” Even the “good Gaddafi” came across as the quintessential mad dictator from Hollywood’s central casting.
However over the past week, nobody in Libya is laughing, as Gaddafi, his rump of mesmerized supporters, Libyan air force aircraft, helicopters and crazed yellow helmeted African mercenaries, launched Gaddafi’s most vicious and deadly attack ever–targeting his own people who had dared to protest against his 42 years of oppressive rule. Hundreds are known to have been killed and the final casualties are likely to be far greater.
After Libya’s oil lubricated alliance with the West, the country’s tourism industry began to take off, despite the regime’s often-fickle changes in visa and entry requirements. Sites such as Tobruk, a famous World War II battle site, and the magnificent Cartheginian city of Leptis Magnus were open for visitors and tourist hotels sprung up in Tripoli, Benghazi and other Libyan towns and cities.
Today every foreigner in Libya is using whatever means possible to leave Libya and avoid the revolt against Gaddafi and the massacres being committed daily against protesters by the dwindling number of military and police forces loyal to Gaddafi. Gaddafi’s off the wall eccentricities have morphed into a crumbling dictator who has literally gone off his head and is flailing at anyone who is perceived as a threat to his regime. This is both a catastrophe for the Libyan people and a disaster for tourism. The iron fist may have rusted but it retains its venom. It can only be hoped that when Gaddafi’s dictatorship reaches its ultimate dénouement, tourism to this fascinating country can be restored.
David Beirman is a Senior Lecturer in Tourism at the University of Technology-Sydney. His book, Restoring Tourism Destinations in Crisis: A Strategic Marketing Approach, is available for purchase online. He is currently one of eTN’s top travel and tourism security experts.