Sat, Sep 11, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Libyan tourism plan calls for millions to visit desert nation

AFP , TRIPOLI

The lobby of the only five-star hotel in the Libyan capital, situated on the Mediterranean, is as elegant as it is empty.

Only a handful of tourists and businessmen can be seen in the Corinthia Bab Africa (Gateway to Africa) hotel, seen as the jewel in the crown of this country's embryonic tourist industry.

It is hard to believe that the country is hoping to welcome three million tourists a year by 2008.

The city's other two tourist-quality hotels, also on the seafront, are somewhat faded, symbols of tourism's neglect during tough international economic sanctions imposed for its involvement in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

As well as paying compensation to relatives of bombing victims, Libya decided last year to stop developing weapons of mass destruction, moves which led to the country rejoining the international community.

The country is now being touted as an Eldorado for potential investors, foreign and Libyan. The Libyan-Maltese Corinthia, opened a year ago, is the most glittering example.

"You can't ignore the authorities' energies when it comes to mobilizing means, once they have set themselves an objective," said one Arab diplomat.

Those means would include this year's record US$15 billion oil revenues, thanks to high oil prices.

Nor does Libyan leader Moammar Kadhafi miss an opportunity to play up the country's tourism potential, tying in with his efforts over the past year to open the country's economy to private investment.

"Libya could be the best tourist destination in the world if we respect the tourism industry," he said on September 1, the 35th anniversary of the coup that brought him to power.

With 2,000km of coastline, beaches, a seemingly endless desert made up of elevated plateaux and plains of multicolored gravel, as well as isolated oases, the country's appeal seems as broad as the desert.

Tourists may be drawn by well-preserved remains like the Roman theater at Sabratha, but investors say that one serious obstacle to progress may be the Islamic regime itself: the absence of alcohol and nightlife contrasts with what many tourists hope for from a holiday.

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