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Coming in from the cold: Libya has all the assets to make it a prime tourist destination, as well as the political will to introduce the necessary policies to develop the infrastructure to succeed in doing so.

Within 15 years, Libya is anticipating building a tourism sector that will welcome some five million visitors a year. That was the extraordinary claim made by Hadi Bkai, the director of a Tripoli-based tourist agency, Fessano Tours, who told The Middle East that he fully expected this forecast to be met, despite the world's current economic downturn. The downturn may have already negatively impacted European tourist arrivals in recent months, but Bkai's continuing optimism is based on solid evidence that the country's tourism sector is being developed as part of the nation's effort to diversify the economy.

Piece by piece, the Libyan authorities are putting in place all the elements required to attract visitors. Primarily, tourist entry visas are easier to obtain for Europeans (although all passports need a Arabic-translation page) and can now be applied for upon arrival at Tripoli airport. Visitors from Arabic countries do not require a visa, and other requirements, such as carrying a minimum of $1,000 in cash, have been rescinded for all visitors, according to Ammar El Mabrouk El Tayef, secretary of the General Authority for Tourism and Handicrafts (GATH).

GATH is the body that is steering the country's tourism development master plan, a plan that focuses on sites adjacent to the country's five Unesco World Heritage Sites. The primary aim is to promote cultural tourism and stimulate employment opportunities--a crucial policy objective for a country where the oil and gas industry contributes some 70% of GDP but offers relatively few local jobs, even to a well-educated and industrious population.

However, the blessings of a strong oil and gas industry--Libya is North Africa's biggest oil exporter--do confer some benefits to the tourism sector. Firstly, given the vast revenues that accrue to the state from hydrocarbons, Libya can afford to build its tourism industry carefully. Secondly, expatriates working in the oil and gas industry already represent a significant element of a growing domestic tourist sector, i.e. residents joining Libyans who take leisure time to explore the country's many attractions.

That there is no desperate search for short-term returns at the expense of long-term sustainability was part of reason the bold decision was taken to develop the Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) project. Jebel Akhdar, some 250km east of Libya's second city Benghazi, is a $3bn eco-tourism project led by the Libyan leader Muammar Gadatfi's son, Saif Gadaffi. It hopes to attract more than three million visitors a year by 2015.

Jebel Akhdar's business model differs from those pursued by other North African countries in that the target visitor is the more affluent overseas tourist (and domestic tourists) rather than the sun-and-sea package holidaymaker. Even so, the country's relatively undeveloped Mediterranean coast could well be a magnet for the general tourist once the transport infrastructure and hotels are built, complementing the cultural tourism attractions that Libya is now focusing on. The Jebel Akhdar peninsular, as well as featuring wonderful beaches and spectacular rolling hills of woodland also includes the ancient ruins of five Greek cities--Appollonia, Tocra, Tolmeita, Barce and the World Heritage Site, Cyrene.

Interestingly, Jebel Akhdar's Libyan public-private financing structure also involves the UAE's Gulf Tourism Investments International Group that is partnering with the Libyan Social Economic Development Fund to build new eco-hotels. Also planned for Jebel Akhdar is a new National Park, nature reserves, residential villas and renewable energy projects (primarily wind and solar) to meet the energy requirements of this huge new carbon-neutral project, and no fewer than 65,000 new jobs will be created.

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Gulf investments in Libya are, if anything, growing even if their own domestic economies slow. This is particularly evident in Libya's capital where a number of hotel projects are taking shape, backed by Gulf investment. The UAE-based Hydra Properties is one of the more high-profile: it is partnering the Libyan Real Estate Investment Company to build the tallest tower in Africa, in a complex which will include a new luxury hotel.

The supply of hotel rooms both in Tripoli and across the country is being given maximum priority by GATH as, logically, increasing numbers of tourists will need to be accommodated. By May zooS, GATH had issued 19 new licences for new tourism developments and it is aiming to more than double the number of classified hotel beds in the country. El Tayef reports that there are now at least 30 three- and four-star hotels under construction. Furthermore, a dozen large-scale projects will provide a further 5,000 five-star hotel beds.

Links with the Gulf have been strengthened with the addition of key routes by Libya's youngest airline, Afriqiyah Airways, which now flies to Jeddah and Dubai from its Tripoli hub. Afriqiyah represents one of Libya's biggest investment strategies, having placed a multibillion-dollar order with Airbus for new aircraft and rapidly building a route network that connects seven major European cities with destinations throughout sub-Saharan Africa (to include, from this month, Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa). As well as the Gulf, Afriqiyah are adding Asian destinations later this year.

The development of Afriqiyah Airways' extensive network with Tripoli as a transit point has clear synergies with the ambitions of Libya's tourist industry. Not only will Afriqiyah be able to carry tourists to the country but many of the passengers will have the opportunity to stop over in the Libyan capital, even if for a couple of days. If they do nothing else, then to visit the old town is richly rewarding.

Here, encapsulated in just a couple of square kilometres, is some five thousand years of history--specifically, the ancient civilisations that have risen and fallen in this region of Africa. Living evidence is everywhere, most notably, the architectural artefacts such as Roman columns that were brought from Aswan and incorporated in many of the older buildings when they were first built. And, as in neighbouring North African countries, a few of the houses in the old town are being renovated to provide tourist accommodation.

Elsewhere in Tripoli, alongside the modern architecture, are remnants of the old colonial power's architecture. Italy's cultural stamp is in evidence in the downtown area; faded and crumbling edifices maybe, but ones that still possess much of their former imperial vanities. And everywhere mosques, ancient and modern, contribute their part to a fascinating city in a fascinating country--and that is before you head south, out of the city, to experience the vast expanses of Africa's Sahara.

Gulf investments in Libya are growing
TABLE 1
2007 Tourism visitor arrivals by nationality

Italy 30,966
France 18,946
Germany 17,038
UK 13,533
Spain 5,469
Austria 3,285
Belgium 2,382
Switzerland 1,718
Poland 1,640
Japan 1,434

TABLE 2
2007 Tourism visitor arrival by region

Africa 163
America 813
Europe 101,288
East Asia/Pacific 3,683
South Asia 27
Middle East 23

TABLE 3
2007 Tourism visitor data

Total number tourists 105,997
Tourists (overnight) 38,025
Cruise passengers 67,972
Overnight hotel stays 266,157
Average stay 7 days
Average spend per day $80
Total tourist income $26,731,760
Total number cruises 83
Guests in hotels 433,347
Total hotels 268
Classified hotels 62
Total hotel rooms 13,638
Total classified hotel rooms 6,402

Source for Tables 1-3: GATH
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Title Annotation:BUSINESS: TOURISM
Comment:Coming in from the cold: Libya has all the assets to make it a prime tourist destination, as well as the political will to introduce the necessary policies to develop the infrastructure to succeed in doing so.(BUSINESS: TOURISM)
Author:Williams, Stephen
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:6LIBY
Date:Jul 1, 2009
Words:1206
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