Karen Dabrowska

Tripoli Post Article

Originally published: 30th November 2013

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Libya's Message At The World Travel Market: We Are Welcoming Tourists

In an amazing triumph of hope over experience Libya mounted an impressive stand at this year’s World Travel Market in London. A black and white postcard with a solitary figure in Arab dress gazing over the sand dunes had a clear message: the country is the place where immensity, solitude and the horizon meet.

Promotional materials included books showcasing Libya’s rich cultural heritage, as well as a new DVD just produced by the Ministry of Tourism. This 45-minute film shows much of Libya with more than 1,000 miles of pristine Mediterranean beaches, magnificent Roman and Greek ruins, palm-fringed oases and Saharan troglodyte caves.

The Marriot and Sheraton Hotels are expected to open soon and Afriqiyah the country’s state airline has added Paris to its European destinations Rome, London and Dusseldorf. It will also extend its services to Lagos and Dakar.

The Minister of Tourism Ikram Bashimam never tired of giving interviews as journalists flocked to the stand. Presenting Libya to the world through human interaction is her philosophy.

The priorities are domestic tourism and developing the infrastructure for international tourism. She is convinced that tourism will be the second largest revenue generator after oil.

“Libyans have to visit their country,” Bashimam told The Tripoli Post. “The people from the north like to go to the desert and vice versa. The west and the east are very different geographically. It is very important for all generations to know their history and be proud of the different cultures of Libya.”

With a wave of the hand she rejected talk of separation even though Cyrenaica has just declared its own government. “We work on Libya, we do not work on a divided country or divided areas.”

The ministry of tourism is preparing development plans for 15 areas with potential for tourism including the famous Roman ruins at Leptis Magna, the green mountains and the rock art sites of Tadrart Acacus a rocky massif with thousands of cave paintings in very different styles, dating from 12,000 BC to AD 100.

Mass tourism is not expected for five years but the minister insists that it is possible to get a tourist visa “as long as people follow the process” which will become easier in the long term.

She is confident that the jobs which tourism inevitably generates will help solve the problem of youth unemployment in Libya and ‘give the people with weapons something to do’.

Bashimam is concerned that the media is exaggerating concerns about the security situation. But the kidnapping of the Prime Minister from the luxurious Corinthia Hotel dealt a massive blow to her public relations campaign.

Libya has signed an agreement with the World Tourism Organisation for the development of its tourist industry and is a founding member of the STEP programme (sustainable tourism for eliminating poverty).

“We are in a hurry to develop tourism but we have to take wise and clear steps,” Bashimam emphasised.

While the minister’s enthusiasm knew no bounds Wesam Al Ghagigi of Asfar Alharoj admitted that at present 99 percent of tourism is outgoing and travel agents are organising trips for Libyans who are travelling on business or for medical treatment. Except for visits by businessmen, the press and representatives of NGOs there is no inbound tourism.

“We are here to show that we want things to be better. We have partners overseas and we have to be in touch with them. We can’t just disappear. We are not expecting tourists next year but hopefully in the next three years.

It’s a big battle to establish tourism. If a travel agent came to me and said I want to send a group of tourists right now I could not guarantee their safety. They should be alright in Tripoli and the surrounding areas but in the dessert it is a risk. We need to have a good army to secure the borders.”

In 2014 Libya will be in Nicholas Wood’s political tours, which currently include North Korea. A tour planned for November this year was cancelled due to the security situation but Wood is keen to introduce visitors to different brigades and ordinary families so they can get a first hand experience of life in the post-Gaddafi era.

The dictator has gone. The future is uncertain. But Libyan tour operators are determined to welcome visitors and ensure the industry thrives. “What else can we do", asks Al Ghagigi. “Go and open a fruit shop.”