Last March, the Bush administration announced it was lifting most of America's two-decade-old sanctions on Libya, including a travel ban, as a reward for Moammar Gadhafi's pledge to scrap his nuclear arms programs and resolve outstanding claims from victims of the 1988 bombing of Pam Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Since the late 1990s, Gadhafi has been reaching out to the West in an effort to rebrand Libya, Africa’s second-largest oil producer after Nigeria, as an economic El Dorado. Last month, the first American tourist group to visit Libya in 23 years was led by Richard Bangs, co-founder of Mountain Travel Sobek, the outfitter for the tour, as well as producer-editor of MSNBC’s Great Escapes.
While there, Bangs interviewed Tourism Minister Ammar Mabrouk Eltaye. Some excerpts are below:
How many tourists are coming to Libya now, and are you projecting growth?
Eltaye: As you have witnessed, Libya is a very rich country with cultural sites from ancient civilizations that date back 5,000 years, and great desert nature. Libya is a tourist country. But before now we weren’t dependent on holiday tourism as an income for the country. Now we have started. The numbers that visit Libya now are very limited. For example, 100,000 is a very meager number. We are planning in the future to have 10 million tourists.
Are you planning on building more hotels? (There is currently just one five-star hotel in Libya, the year-old, Maltese-owned Corinthian Bab.)
Eltaye: We [plan] ... building 100,000 beds by 2010.
Do you see Libya attracting the numbers and kinds of tourists that Egypt does?
Eltaye: We offer more. The Egyptians depend upon the pharaohs' civilization (as the primary tourist attraction). Whereas in Libya we have many civilizations, such as the Roman, Phoenician, Greek and ancient Libyan. Also, the 2,000-kilometer Libyan coast is still clean.
Will it become easier for Americans to obtain visas? (It took Bangs' excursion more than a month to get visas, and even then they were issued at the very last minute).
Eltaye: We’ll be working on changing the visa process. Investors will be given a half-year or year visa. We are working on allowing visas at the airport in the future. As for American tourists, the problems are with your government, not our government. They are still not allowing U.S. airlines into Libya.
Do you have plans to develop the Sahara for tourism?
Eltaye: Yes, we are developing the areas in Ghat and around the Akakus Mountains, where you were. We are seeking foreign investment for such. If you have any Microsoft investors, please let us know. (Microsoft is a partner in the joint venture that owns MSNBC.)
Are you going to build golf courses and resorts?
Eltaye: Yes, and a yacht club.
How important is tourism to Libya?
Eltaye: We were relying on oil in the past; we now want tourism to bring in national money and improve our way of living. Now the tourism industry is very crucial for any country. So, we seek 10 percent of our foreign income from tourism. In Spain it is 11 percent. In five years time, Libya will be a tourist country.
Most tourists like to pay with credit cards. Are you working to allow use of credit cards?
Eltaye: Yes, we are working with the Libyan National Bank. Tourism needs an infrastructure here.
If the hotels could serve alcohol to their guests that might bring in more tourists.
Eltaye: In Libyan law, alcohol is not allowed. We don’t think this a problem.
In America, many like adventure travel; people who like to climb and hike.
Eltaye: What is starting now is desert tourism, which is an adventure itself.
Do you have any final comments?
Eltaye: In terms of tourism, we have a wonderful country. The Libyan citizens are very friendly; Libya is safe in terms of security. Libyans are people who like to enjoy themselves, who like music, art, poetry. We welcome any visitors. We welcome any investors.