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Last Updated: Friday, 26 March, 2004, 11:07 GMT
Packing your bags for Libya?
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online

Libya
Libya has five world heritage sites
Is Libya going to be the next big holiday destination? Will travellers, hungry for new places to visit, be chatting about Tripoli around the water-cooler next year?

The country is leaving its political isolation - and tourists are beginning to find their way to one of the least-visited places in the Mediterranean.

This week Tony Blair has been to Libya, and tour company Exodus which specialises in holidays off the beaten path says that there are signs of tourists wanting to explore the country.

"I can really see it taking off as a tourist destination," says the company's group manager, Andrew Appleyard.

Blair in Libya
"So what's the surf like?"
Few western visitors have been to the north African country, but he says that the political thaw is opening up Libya's untapped tourist potential.

There are already six organised trips planned by his company for this year - and he says a major attraction is the "unrivalled" quality of the classical heritage in Libya.

A former archaeologist, Mr Appleyard, says that Libya has a "magnificent" collection of mosaics, museums and Roman baths - which are as good as anything anywhere else in the Mediterranean.

Hotels going up

And he says on his last trip to the country he could already see that hotels were being built, in preparation for a growth in tourism.

Tourism
The tourist trade from Britain to Libya is still in its infancy
But it will be starting almost from scratch.

The Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) says that until recently there was almost no mainstream tourism from Britain to Libya.

"It was a no-go zone," says Abta spokesperson, Sean Tipton. "The Foreign Office advised against going there. There were few flights and the big operators didn't have the infrastructure there that they needed."

An alcohol-free country, where credit cards are not widely accepted, also failed to pull the Mediterranean clubbers.

In 2002, there were only 2,500 travellers from Britain to Libya, he says, most of whom were likely to be visiting for business rather than tourism.

But Mr Tipton says that modern travellers have a taste for finding places that have not already been over-run by tourists - and he says that the first tourists were heading for Iraq almost as soon as the war was over.

Visa hassles

Part of the problem for visiting Libya has been a reputation for a difficult visa process - with the necessity of arranging an "invitation" into the country and complications such as having to get your passport translated into Arabic.

Tripoli
Big city fun - if you can get a visa
Travel guide company, Lonely Planet, says that this should be more straightforward than it sounds, but it may take a couple of months. And independent travel will not necessarily be easy.

"Tourist visas are generally not available to individuals unless they are part of an organised tour group," says Lonely Planet's Briony Grogan.

Tourists who have Israeli visas in their passports will also be refused entry, she says.

There are agencies which will translate passports for about 16, says Briony Grogan. And Andrew Appleyard says that travellers can get the translations as part of the overall visa application process.

World heritage site

But he says that the restrictions mean that it is "not exactly going to be a last-minute destination".

There could also need to be changes to make the country more tourist-friendly.

A British holidaymaker who visited two years ago found that independent travel within the country was very difficult for non-Arabic speakers. There was also a lack of restaurants - and prices were high for the region.

But what will you see when you get there? The first efforts at attracting western visitors have highlighted Libya's classical heritage - and it's not widely known that the country has five United Nations "world heritage sites".

These include remains of the ancient city of Leptis Magna, which is claimed as one of the finest Roman sites in the Mediterranean, with a forum, amphitheatre, circus and temples.

There are also ancient Greek sites, such as the city of Cyrene.

And for travel-hungry holidaymakers, another big pull is that so far very few people from Britain can say they were there before you.




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