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Tourists Not Common Sight in Libya, But Picture Could Change Very Soon
The Washington Diplomat / October 2009

By Larry Luxner

TRIPOLI — At the Fez Restaurant on the 26th floor of Tripoli's swank Corinthia Bab Africa Hotel, bartender Abdel Hamid proudly serves "mocktails" that — true to Islamic practice — contain no alcohol whatsoever.

For nine Libyan dinars (about $7.60), you can choose between Jamaican Delight (pear with bitter soda) and Sahara Mirage (a concoction of bananas, dates, almonds and milk). And just one dinar (85 cents) more can buy you an ice-cold frothy glass of Tripoli Sunrise (orange juice, fresh carrots and grenadine syrup).

But don't expect too many tourists to join you at the bar.

In 2007, the last year for which statistics were available, only 105,997 bona fide tourists set foot in Libya — less than 1 percent of the 12.8 million tourists who visited neighboring Egypt the same year. And that was down 16 percent from the 125,480 who came to Libya in 2006. The reason: an abrupt decree in early 2007 that all non-Arab visitors must now have their passports translated into Arabic in order to obtain a Libyan visa.

Libya's complete ban on booze doesn't help attract foreigners either. Nor does the country's undeserved reputation as a dangerous place for Westerners, particularly Americans — a holdover from the days when U.S.-Libya relations were at an all-time low.

The fact is that while Libya is not Morocco — teeming with tour buses and throngs of camera-toting cruise ship passengers — it is not Algeria either. Reports of violence against the few Americans or Europeans who venture here are unheard of; even minor crimes like petty theft are extremely rare.

From a tourism point of view, Libya is unique because of its relative isolation for the past three decades. Like communist Cuba half a world away (Tripoli is often called the "Havana of North Africa," for good reason), the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya offers visitors a colorful assortment of propaganda billboards and endless miles of white-sand beaches.

But it also boasts five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, spectacular desert landscapes, enchanting souqs and genuinely warm and hospitable people. The Roman ruins at Sabratha and Leptis Magna are world-class, as are the 12,000-year-old rock carvings of Wadi Tashwinat and the labyrinthine, covered passageways of Ghadames.

In Tobruk, near the Egyptian border, tourists can reflect upon the sprawling World War II cemetery to fallen soldiers, while at desert oasis of Awjila, one can stroll through the seventh-century Al-Kabir Mosque, famous for its beehive domes and mud-brick arches.

One thing Libya doesn't have is an abundance of tourist-friendly hotels. In Tripoli, the government-run properties are notorious for bathtubs that don't drain, air-conditioners that don't work and generally indifferent service.

The one exception to this is Tripoli's five-star Corinthia — strictly a businessman's hotel, where a one-night stay can easily cost $700 excluding taxes. Despite those astronomical — some say unjustified — rates, this 300-room property in the heart of Tripoli's booming commercial district is nearly always full.

"We can't handle the amount of business that comes in," general manager John O'Brien said, noting that 90 percent of the Corinthia's guests are on expense accounts. "Our largest corporate client is the Libyan government, and they put most of their VIP delegations in our hotel. The next largest nationality would be Italians."

O'Brien, an Australian who came to Libya a year ago, said "very few Americans stay here. Most of them are involved in government, or they're in construction or oil and gas."

The Corinthia — which for a time hosted the U.S. diplomatic mission until a real embassy was established not far away — is a 50-50 venture between Malta-based International Hotel Investments PLC and Lafico, a Libyan government sovereign fund (the IHI-Lafico partnership also owns Corinthia properties in London, Budapest and St. Petersburg, Russia).

The hotel, which Lonely Planet describes as "a towering temple of glass and elegance," will generate revenues of 30 million euro ($43 million) in 2009, closing the year at 83 percent occupancy. Since its opening in 2002, says O'Brien, the Corinthia has never lost money. All other five-star properties in the capital as well as in Benghazi are government-owned and managed.

"We've been the only game in town for a long time," he conceded. "But that's about to change."

It sure is. In the next three years, no less than 3,000 hotel rooms are expected to come onto the market, bringing the prestige of well-known international brands to Libya for the first time ever. These include a 370-room JW Marriott, a 350-room Radisson, a 410-room Mφvenpick, a 400-room Sheraton and a 380-room InterContinental.

The 36-story Marriott, rising on an empty lot within walking distance of the Corinthia, will likely become a prominent landmark on the Tripoli skyline overlooking the Mediterranean. It's being built by South Korea's Daewoo construction conglomerate and is slated to open in 2011.

"We are very excited to be operating one of the first internationally branded hotels in Tripoli," said Ed Fuller, Marriott's president anad managing director of international lodging. "The city has a rich cultural and historic legacy, and is emerging as a substantial commercial center in Libya. We look forward to participating in the city's future."

In addition, Libya's first Holiday Inn should also open in 2011. Kuwait's M.A. Kharafi Group has committed $130 million to develop this four-star hotel.

Parallel to Tripoli's hotel boom is the capital city's efforts to make itself a hub for international airline traffic. A local airline, Afriqiyah Airways, now offers direct flights between Tripoli and more than a dozen African and Middle Eastern cities from Dakar to Dubai. It has also begun nonstop flights between Libya and the Chinese cities of Beijing and Guangzhou.

Other airlines see Libya's allure as well. Emirates now flies between Tripoli seven days a week, while Qatar Airways offers Casablanca-Tripoli service and is considering direct flights from Doha. British Airways flies between London and Tripoli daily, but it's considering a second daily flight because of strong demand, while Turkish Airlines flies from Istanbul to both Tripoli and Benghazi on a daily basis.

A major obstacle to luring more Americans to Libya is the near-impossibility of obtaining tourist visas to the North African country.

Hamed Arbi El-Houderi, chairman and general manager of Libya's Economic & Social Development Fund, which is investing billions of dollars in tourism ventures, says that "although relations with the United States are very good now, we still have this visa problem" that prevents more Americans from getting to know Libya and vice-versa.

Unfortunately, said El-Houderi, that probably won't change until Washington reciprocates by making it easier for average Libyans to visit the United States.

"Once I got a U.S. visa within a couple of weeks, but another time I applied for a visa and it took me 11 months," said the official. "By the time I got it, I had no reason to go anymore."

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