Libya tries to tempt tourists

Libyan tour operators are encouraging holiday makers to ignore the violence sweeping the country by insisting that 75 per cent of the nation is "safe".

Libya is one of the least likely choices for a holiday, especially as violence and protest continues to spread across the country - but that is not deterring tourism officials and tour companies from promoting it as a destination.

"More than 75 per cent of the land is safe," said Ali Saidi, the general manager of Safari Tourism Services, based in Tripoli. "It is safe," he insisted. Last week Mr Saidi was at the ITB exhibition in Berlin, the world's largest travel show, along with a handful of colleagues from Libya's tourism industry.

As unrest and fighting broke out in Libya in an uprising against Muammar Qaddafi's regime, foreigners fled the country. Its tourism industry is small, accounting for just over 1 per cent of the economy. The country attracts up to 150,000 tourists a year, including visitors from Italy, France, Spain and the UK, who largely visit on cultural tours and trips into the desert. But Libya has ambitions to grow the sector dramatically.

"We used to focus on oil too much," said Zakaria Abouzed, of the Libyan General Authority for Tourism and Handicrafts. "Oil one day will finish. We have to start to create something new to help our national economy. We are planning to increase the number by the year 2025 to up to 4.6 million tourists."

However, for now the violence has completely wiped out what there was of Libya's fledgling tourism business, with air carriers and tour operators cancelling services and strict travel warnings issued by foreign authorities.

"Business is 100 per cent down," said Mohamed Zagloul, the chairman of Africana, a Libyan tourism company. "For the moment there's nothing."

International tour operators say Libya is rich in cultural, historical and natural resources, but has not managed its assets effectively. Its attractions include the ruins of Roman cities in western Libya, Greek ruins in the east, and the Sahara.

Local operators lament that too little has been done to develop the industry.

"The government does not support tourism yet," said Mr Saidi. "They are depending on black gold - oil and gas. They don't understand the meaning of tourism. "