Libya lets in Americans ... but with reservations

Tripoli is keen to engage Washington to further business interests as normalisation talks continue between the two countries.

RABAT // The ink was barely dry on a trade deal signed last month between the United States and Libya when Tripoli marked the occasion with a long-awaited bonus: visas for US tourists after five years of blockade.

The United States is pursuing tourism as part of strengthening relations with Libya, while tour operators catering to Americans are gearing up for a new market. Analysts say that while Libya is keen to engage with the US, the country's government remains wary of too much openness too fast. Welcoming US tourists "is a sign of goodwill", said Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya expert and associate professor of government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. "The Libyans are giving ground on this to further their other interests."

US-Libyan relations went downhill after the country's leader, Muammar Qadafi, took power in a bloodless coup in 1969 that toppled Libya's pro-western monarchy. Banning political parties, Mr Qadafi reorganised Libya as a system of popular committees with himself as "Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution". Libya proceeded to support numerous militant groups and liberation movements, prompting the US to cut ties in 1981 and impose economic sanctions. Libya's isolation deepened with UN sanctions after the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people and was blamed on Libyan agents.

Mr Qadafi has recently sought to mend ties with the West. In 2002 Libya paid US$2.7 billion (Dh9.9bn) to families of the Lockerbie victims and the following year renounced attempts to acquire a nuclear weapon. Sanctions against Libya have been dropped, and full diplomatic ties with the United States were restored in 2006. Washington cancelled a two-decade Libya travel ban for US citizens in 2004. Meanwhile, Libya's vast oil reserves and sovereign wealth fund have made it a world economic player. US imports from the country have shot from zero to US$ 1.9 billion since 2003. Under last month's trade agreement, the two countries will set up a joint council to oversee trade issues, and the United States will help with Libya's application to join the World Trade Organisation.

A US consulate opened last year in Tripoli has so far issued more than 5,000 non-immigrant visas to Libyans, said Yael Lempert, the US consul in Libya. But apart from a handful of business travellers, oil workers, journalists and diplomats, almost no US citizen has visited Libya since 2005, when the country put a near-total freeze on tourist visas for them for reasons that remain unclear. Now that is changing, Mrs Lempert said. "To our knowledge, American citizens have already started to arrive in Libya."

The United States and Libya began visa normalisation talks in March that Washington hopes will lead to both countries issuing long-stay, multiple-entry visas, Mrs Lempert said. "Travel between the countries, going both ways, is part of the foundation of the bilateral relationship." For now, "relations are moving in the right direction", said Mustafa Fetouri, a political analyst and professor of business management at Tripoli's Academy of Graduate Studies. "Libya has suspicions of American tourists here, but these suspicions may be less significant now."

Libyan authorities have traditionally viewed cultural and educational exchange with the US as a potential threat to Libya's revolutionary ideology, and at worst a security concern, analysts said. "But the general public has always believed that we should have good relations with the US," Mr Fetouri said. "Libyans will welcome the possibility of American tourists." Some Americans are jumping at the chance, said Perry Lungmus, vice-president of sales for Travcoa, a tour operator based outside of Los Angeles. "We've had a lot of reservations, starting the morning we advertised resumed travel to Libya. Since 2005 we've had a waiting list of people, waiting for this moment."

Like other western tourists, Americans must arrange their visas through tour operators and have an Arabic translation of their personal information page stamped into their passports. In return, travellers get access to attractions including the Sahara desert, a Mediterranean coastline and world-class Roman sites such as Leptis Magna - an array of columns, statuary and the carved heads of gorgons on the coast east of Tripoli.

Libya received 105,997 tourists in 2007, according to the most cent figures from the Libyan tourism board. The country has said it wants to make that 1.5 million by 2012. Yet supporting tourism is a step taken reluctantly by a government whose bottom line remains Libya's political and economic interests, Mr Vandewalle said. "The Libyans realise that if you get a trade agreement you're going to have to make concessions."