TRIPOLI: 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 neighboring 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 Moammar Gadhafi’s forces from the capital in August.
One company, Sherwes Travel, already advertises a three-day, 295 euro ($404) tour of “postwar 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.
“The tour was very popular, actually. But not now, not yet,” said Ibrahim Usta, the company’s self-described international customer assistant. He said while some potential visitors had been in touch, it was not yet possible to bring them to Libya.
“We have many inquiries right now, but 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 Gadhafi’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.
“I heard about it [the law] at the airport,” Ellotai said, shaking his head.
He and others said they hoped the country’s new rulers – now represented by the interim National Transitional Council – would be able to do more with the industry when the war is over.
NTC forces are still fighting to take over Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte and a few other bastions of Gadhafi loyalists, which has impeded efforts to set up effective government nationwide and restart oil production.
Libya’s lucrative oil and gas industry made tourism less of a priority than in Egypt and Tunisia, where it was a major contributor of jobs and foreign revenues before the uprisings in those countries.
Libyan central bank official Ali Shnebesh estimated tourism could account for between 3 and 4 percent of the economy within five to 10 years, depending on how much effort the country’s new government puts into it.
“It would decrease unemployment, since we have a lot of areas that are good for tourism,” he said. “It would put thousands of our people to work in these places in many sectors – telecommunications, transportation, hotels – everywhere.”
It is difficult to tell how much tourism contributed to Libya’s economy before the revolt because it was not tracked as a separate industry in central bank records, but Shnebesh estimated it was below half a percent of gross domestic product.
That compares to Egypt, for instance, where officials said it accounted for over 11 percent before the revolt.
There is plenty of evidence of the lax oversight at the ancient Greek colony of Cyrene, which was featured in the chronicler Herodotus’s “The Histories” and is now a UNESCO world heritage site, in the eastern Jebel al-Akhdar region.
The site is overgrown with weeds and graffiti is 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 still on display, 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,” he said. “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 favoritism 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 volunteered 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.