Page last updated at 12:26 GMT, Thursday, 9 July 2009 13:26 UK

Libya's struggles with modernity

Travelling to the Libyan town of Sirte to report on the African Union summit, Christian Fraser considers whether Libya is ready for an era of mass tourism.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi (R) welcomes Somalia President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed (L) to the African Union Summit
Muammar Gaddafi stressed the importance of unity at the summit

It is midnight at Tripoli airport, across the road from the arrivals hall. Beyond high mesh fences and the white glare of towering floodlights, a Chinese workforce is labouring through the night on a new terminal.

The air is hot and heavy. The face of Muammar Gaddafi stares out from a nearby billboard, as if micromanaging his country's construction boom.

En route to the African Union summit, I had just emerged from the old arrivals hall - dour, disorganised and full of government spooks. I was delayed for an inordinate amount of time while they checked, then rechecked, that rarest of Libyan commodities, a journalist's visa.

The two faces of Libya, a perfect illustration of where the country has come from, and where it is going.

Once the international pariah, now a state in full-speed transition.

Embracing capitalism

In the past year, Muammar Gaddafi has travelled the world signing profitable oil and gas deals that will help transform Tripoli into the new Mediterranean destination - or so they hope - for an influx of adventurous tourists.

There is still some way to go, but the beachfront is awash with five-star developments the government is building with its millions of petrodollars. No more sanctions, no more socialism.

"Twenty-five thousand new flats," beamed Ahmed, my government minder, as we sped into town past another busy building site - $200,000 (£125,000) each," he marvelled.

I could tell he was an enthusiastic proponent of the new Libyan capitalism. And a loyal subject - a Gaddafi key-ring was hanging from his trouser pocket.

Tourist restrictions

There is much to see and enjoy in Libya.

Paiting of Muammar Gaddafi at Tripoli Airport
Muammar Gaddafi has ruled Libya since 1969

Spectacular Greek and Roman remains, the open-air galleries of prehistoric rock art and glorious largely uninhabited sandy beaches.

Plus, of course, that frisson that is always associated with visiting a country previously off-limit to Westerners.

And therein lies the rub. As much as Libya may like the idea of tourists, and the hard currency they bring, it has yet to embrace the reality.

Tourists must still travel in organised groups with a government-approved guide.

There is no opportunity to wander unfettered around the well-preserved Roman city of Leptis Magna or the magnificent theatre at Sabratha.

Accommodation shortage

Pity the poor tourist who runs into the Libyan control freakery I experienced last week on the way to this African Union summit.

Map of Libya showing Tripoli and Sirte

It was held in Sirte, an undistinguished coastal town just along the way from Tripoli.

The flight to Sirte is a short one. A journey across a long stretch of barren coastline.

Beneath us those remote beaches from which hundreds of illegal African migrants escape to Europe every year. These are the people currently flooding into Tripoli.

I could see why stopping their advance proves such an enormous challenge. Aside from sporadic roadblocks, there is very little between the vast expanse of Sahara and the shoreline from where they set sail in their makeshift rafts and boats.

The building frenzy of Tripoli is yet to reach the distant outpost of Sirte.

Mr Gaddafi cruised around his manor in one of those ostentatiously large buses favoured by touring rock stars

Tourists might find a hotel room, but such was the shortage of accommodation during the summit, that journalists and dignitaries would be sleeping on a clapped-out, Panamanian-registered, car ferry brought in specially for the event.

No five-star facilities, these.

We paid top dollar for a cabin cloaked in the faintest whiff of diesel. Mine was already occupied by a cockroach and each day he raced me for the shower attached to the sink.

When Mr Gaddafi travels abroad he takes a Bedouin tent with him. I should have followed suit.

Closely watched

So why would you drag hundreds of summit delegates, 12 African leaders, diplomats, politicians and journalists to a one-horse town in the middle of nowhere?

Simple really. It is the ancestral home of Libya's egocentric leader, who for 39 years has fostered this one-man personality cult.

Throughout the week, he cruised around his manor in one of those ostentatiously large buses favoured by touring rock stars.

For his opening speech, he wore the golden robes of a king. One invited dignitary was so overcome in his presence, she fell to her knees at his feet.

Not satisfied with this all-encompassing power in Libya, the Colonel is even pushing a bold ambition for a unified continent, a United States of Africa modelled on the European Union.

EU ideals? Tell that not just to the journalists, but also the VIPs at this summit who were herded from one location to another, closely observed at all times - and whose contact with the outside world was sorely limited by the electronic equipment used by state security, whenever the Colonel was in town.

Is Mr Gaddafi and his "new Libya" really prepared for all that comes with mass tourism? The evidence of this African Union summit suggests not yet.

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Profile: Muammar Gaddafi
28 Aug 09 |  Africa
Country profile: Libya
21 May 11 |  Country profiles


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