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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 September 2007, 17:35 GMT 18:35 UK
Reformed Libya eyes eco-tourist boom
By Michael Hirst
BBC News, Cyrene

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi launches the project in Cyrene
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi launched the project in ancient Cyrene
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's son has unveiled a 1.5bn ($3bn) plan aimed at safeguarding Libya's archaeological sites and preventing the overdevelopment of its rugged Mediterranean coastline.

It represents a further step in the country's international rehabilitation.

What Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's initiative lacked in detail it made up for in sheer ambition.

The "Green Mountain Sustainable Development Area" envisages a national park, eco-friendly hotels, organic farms and the restoration of archaeological sites that rival the Mediterranean's most famous.

Its backers hope the initiative will bring well-heeled eco-tourists flocking to the 2,000 sq-mile area of land along the north-eastern unspoilt coastline between Benghazi and Tobruk, creating jobs for more than 70,000 young Libyans in the process.

Costly project

A bespectacled Saif Gaddafi, bedecked in traditional Libyan robes, read a prepared speech in stilted English to a gathering of 200 dignitaries and journalists within Cyrene's impressive 2,000-year-old forum.

Founded by Greeks in 631BC
Becomes important city in Hellenic/Roman worlds
Temple of Zeus was larger than Athens' Parthenon
City destroyed by earthquake in 365AD
Named Unesco World Heritage Site in 1982

"Our intention is to build a complete and sustainable social, cultural, economic and environmental system in which the needs of the present allow for the needs of future generations," said Saif Gaddafi, flanked by 2,000-year-old Greek columns.

The realisation of such lofty goals will not come cheap, with estimates ranging from 1bn to 2.5bn.

Those involved with the Cyrene project were vague about the designs, time-frame and costs.

Spencer de Grey, head of design at Lord Norman Foster's British architectural firm, which was commissioned to plan the project, said it was too early to define a time-frame or cost-structure.

"These plans are really just to illustrate potential; these are not yet a finite proposal," he told the BBC.

'Green' creed

Sceptics at the launch wondered how such an ambitious project, existing in its early stages as a glossy publicity brochure and several scale models, would be funded.

Dignitaries and reporters stand next to a model of Libya's coast
Guests were given a detailed brief on the ambitious project

Peter Bunyard, a founding editor of the Ecologist magazine, said: "It's obviously going to be a very expensive investment so quite where the financing will come from I do not know."

The project is being seen as an attempt to diversify Libya's economy, which is currently dependent on oil for 95% of its export earnings and 25% cent of its GDP.

Thirty-eight years after his father assumed the role of Libya's "Brotherly Leader and Guide" in a bloodless coup, Saif Gaddafi avoided speculation about the impact of millions of tourists visiting a country still governed according to the blend of Islam and socialism that make up Col Gaddafi's "green" creed.

Condoleezza Rice visit?

Although he has no official position within Libya's government, 35-year-old Saif has been cultivating a reputation as a reformer.

The second oldest of Col Gaddafi's seven sons, Saif studied architecture at university in Tripoli and will shortly complete a governance and international relations doctorate at the London School of Economics.

The Green Mountain project is the latest step in Libya's evolution from international pariah.

In 2003, 11 years of UN sanctions were lifted when Col Gaddafi announced he was abandoning Libya's nuclear weapons programme.

Last year, the US state department removed Libya from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the US embassy in Tripoli opened its doors for the first time since it was attacked and set ablaze by a mob in 1979.

Libya's coming in from the international cold could be crowned this year with a scheduled visit by Condoleezza Rice.

If that trip goes ahead, she will be the first US secretary of state to visit in more than half a century.

Bemused locals lined dusty streets as police escorted a motorcade of gleaming white Mercedes vans transporting dignitaries and journalists around Cyrene's ancient ruins.

During 30 years in political quarantine, Libya has not welcomed many tourists to its ancient heritage sites. If Saif Gaddafi has his way, that will soon change.

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