Libya's ruins: Will they pull the tourists?

By Karen Allen
BBC News, Tripoli


A cluster of women, all modestly dressed in head scarves, have gathered outside the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi' s compound at Bab al-Aziza in the capital, Tripoli.

It is the Libyan equivalent of a hen party. The bride, dressed head to foot in pink, is beaming as her friends take pictures, posing in front of the shattered remains of what was one of the colonel's home.

The site has become a tourist attraction drawing in curious crowds from across Libya. They peer at the rubble, photograph the graffiti and some arrive with spades, literally digging for gold.

Just as we leave a crowd of women, uniformly dressed in light blue head scarves, descend from a cluster of coaches.

"We're from Misrata [the city where Col Gaddafi's body was displayed after his killing in October]," one of them declares proudly, giving us the thumbs up sign and clutching her camera.

But it is relics of another bygone era that officials are hoping will draw in foreign tourists - not just rubberneckers or war tourists gawping at Nato's crude footprint following its bombing campaign to overthrow the former regime.

The ancient Roman sites of Leptis Magna and Sabratha lie to the east of Tripoli, easily reached within a couple of hours.

Their stunning location and fascinating history already attract a modest number of local visitors, but with a new interim government in office, there is already talk of how to attract more foreigners to Libya.

Imagine Knossos in Crete, the pyramids in Egypt or Pompei in Italy. Now, imagine no crowds. That is Libya.

Visa restrictions

"When people hear you are from Libya all they can say is Gaddafi," laments Ahmed, an engineering student from the beach-side neighbourhood that nestles beside the limestone ruins of Leptis Magna.

His is a generation that sees enormous growth and opportunity in a Libya that defines its own terms.

Image caption,
Few foreigners visit the Roman ruins in Libya

The signs have been there for the past few years - new hotels being built and Maltese businesses investing heavily as economic reforms creaked forward, albeit at a glacial pace.

But now the pace is likely to be stepped up and unlike many Libyan students who want to pursue careers abroad, Ahmed's aim is to try to rehabilitate his country in an attempt to woo foreigners in.

In the past, visa restrictions and cash constraints (credit card facilities were limited in many parts of Libya) put a cap on the numbers visiting Libya.

Most of the 220,000 tourists who came to the country each year were business tourists with just 50,000 holidaymakers.

"This is now our time," declares Jalal Baayou from the Arab Company for Tourism and Development, which does much of the subcontracted tourism development work for the new government.

He believes that with investment in infrastructure and improved security, Libya could become "a top destination to rival Egypt within the next 10 years".

That appears optimistic, given that rival militias still operate and nearly every second person you see in the street carries a weapon.

But these are early days and improved security and confidence, once the interim government paves the way to elections, signals enormous opportunities.

"Tourism could become the biggest revenue stream after oil," Mr Baayou beams.

Sipping macchiato

Image caption,
The slain Libyan leader's belongings have become a tourist attraction

George Orr, who agreed to give us a "foreigners eye'd view" of Tripoli, has been living in the city for more than 30 years. Originally from Fife in Scotland, Libya is now clearly home.

"I wish I had bought some land down at the beach," he sighs.

He snaps around the back alleys with the confidence of a local, regales us with the history of the first Anglican church in Libya - St Mary's, which was once a Catholic Cathedral - and sips strong Libyan coffee in a beautifully restored hotel down a back street in the Italian quarter, whilst conversing in perfect Arabic with the proprietor.

Despite the terrible memories of Italian colonial rule, the Italian influences are everywhere in the capital - from the people sipping macchiato in a piazza in the old city overlooking what was once a Spanish church and is now a mosque, to the laid back Mediterranean pace of life.

Specialist travellers have long selected itineraries that take them to the war cemeteries in Tobruk, Beghazi and Tripoli, which pay tribute to the fallen from the Second World War.

That sector is expected to grow but, instead of a country that is trading on its past, Libya will be trying cultivate the image of a modern tourist destination.