Mass Tourism or Mass Confusion? with Libya Keen to Establish Normal, Post-Sanctions Relations with the International Community, Why Do There Still Seem to Be So Many Obstacles Put in the Way of Non-Arab Citizens Wishing to Use the Country as a Tourist Destination? Eamonn Gearon Reports from Tripoli
Gearon, Eamonn, The Middle East
LIBYA IS A veritable treasure trove for tourists, from largely unspoilt antiquities and desert landscapes of the first order to old fashioned, unhurried Arabic hospitality at its finest. So, when the US government dropped the majority of its sanctions against the country in 2003, who were the first foreigners to gain entry? Not well-heeled tourists or penurious young backpackers but, rather, those employed in the oil industry, whose work often turns them into unwilling travellers forced to spend much of their time in foreign and not always exotic locations.
Today, Libya is Africa's second largest oil producer after Nigeria, and that is after two decades of isolation and sanctions and before the slated millions of foreign investment that is sure to have an enormous impact on the country as a whole.
Since that time, while tourist numbers have risen slowly, there remains a long way to go before the country can be called tourist friendly. This is not, however, the fault of ordinary Libyans, who are among the world's most hospitable hosts, but rather before they are even granted access to the country. First among these issues is the requirement still in force that non-Arab foreigners who wish to obtain a visa still need to either sign up for an organised tour or receive a letter of invitation from someone resident in Libya.
Even as the 'brother-leader' Colonel Gadaffi receives--and in turn is received by--ever increasing numbers of heads of states and other, lesser foreign dignitaries, those various government departments responsible for tourism policy seem determined not to willingly extend the hand of friendship to interested visitors.
Among the more serious problems that hinder progress for Libyan tourism are the numerous government departments who each control some distinct aspect of policy, jealously guarding their turf to the detriment of a single, nationwide approach. Whether the Foreign, Interior or Tourism Ministry, to name but three, each body has its own rules and regulations, and none of this bureaucracy can be avoided by those involved in the tourism industry. While it is possible that these diverse bodies might be able to do the required job were they to cooperate closely, this cooperation is exactly what is missing from the equation. The veracity of such claims can be confirmed by the fact that tour operators and government officials alike were in agreement when questioned on the issue.
One recent change made to the rules governing tourists was that visas would no longer be issued to individuals or pairs of people travelling together, with three people being the smallest group now allowed into the country. In line with the existent policy, these groups of three would still need to be accompanied by a representative of an officially sanctioned Libyan tour company. Larger groups will henceforth require the presence of a police minder.
Independent travel was effectively outlawed by this new decree. However, as no official government announcement has been produced, further details or reasons for the decision remain unclear. United in their confusion, Libyan tour operators remain as bemused as tourists as to the reasons why their government seems determined to destroy such a business sector with obvious potential, even before it has had a chance to grow.
For many people, especially those used to independent travel, the idea of travelling as part of an organised group, to be shepherded from one ancient sight to another, runs contrary to the entire point of journeying in the first place: to enjoy that freedom of movement that is so often denied to them in their ordinary, workaday lives. Rather than subject themselves to timetables, schedules and the unnecessarily high charges made by tour companies, these people would rather not travel at all.
There is a truism in Libya that there are just two sectors to the economy: oil and gas and everything else. …