Archive for Sunday, August 22, 2004

Libya’s desert, dunes big draw

Locals hope for American tourists now that travel restrictions are lifted

August 22, 2004

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— Hassan Hudana has a small hotel and a big dream.

His 14 ratty rooms are among the most luxurious accommodations for visitors to Ghadames' ancient town of mud houses and dark, twisting passageways. But the lobby makes clear he hopes to change that very soon.

In a glass case sits a plastic model of the hotel Hudana WANTS to build, a sprawling complex of luxury suites, restaurants and shopping mall, with a swimming pool, tennis courts and a sauna. The design is modeled on the ancient city tourists come to see.

Hudana is meeting with Italian and German investors in the hopes of getting his project off the ground. He needs money, he says, and marketing advice.

Tourists, he says, aren't a problem.

Open door to outside world

Since the government of Moammar Gadhafi began its campaign to open its doors to the outside world, renouncing terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, European travelers have flooded into Libya on cheap package tours.

In February, the United States lifted 23-year-old restrictions on Americans traveling to Libya because of the government's sponsorship of terrorism.

Libyans eagerly await jumbo jets filled with tourists, hoping they can infuse money into the struggling economy. Many also hope the visitors will bring new ideas, and pressure the government to open up even more.

A boy throws stones to knock down seeds from a palm tree for his
goat herd near Ghadames in western Libya.

A boy throws stones to knock down seeds from a palm tree for his goat herd near Ghadames in western Libya.

From a tourist's point of view, Libya has much to offer.

Its Roman ruins rival those found in Rome. But there's much, much more. Libya boasts the ruins of ancient Greek outposts, Phoenician settlements and Berber cities. It has mountaintop castles and desert oases. Its Mediterranean beaches are unspoiled, and new construction in major cities are bringing world-class hotels.

"You can follow all civilization in a single place," says tour operator Hussein Rahid. "People who come from different countries enjoy it a lot."

Tourism rising

Last year 350,000 tourists visited Libya -- the largest number ever, Tourism Ministry officials said on condition of anonymity. They said projections call for 1 million tourists a year by 2010.

Already, officials are in negotiations with foreign companies to build hotels and tourist villages that will accommodate 100,000 beds by that date, Tourism Minister Ammar Al-Taif told The Associated Press.

Magnificent architecture

If they come, they won't be disappointed.

Wandering the near-deserted ruins of Leptis Magna, one can imagine the Romans and Phoenicians who lived amid the coastal structures from 49 B.C. to A.D. 800.

A magnificent archway -- limestone covered in marble -- commemorates a visit by Emperor Septimus Severus, who was born in Leptis Magnus in A.D. 145.

European tourists listen as a tour guide describes the old sector
of Tripoli, Libya. Some 350,000 tourists visited Libya in 2003, and
the government expects up to 1 million by 2010.

European tourists listen as a tour guide describes the old sector of Tripoli, Libya. Some 350,000 tourists visited Libya in 2003, and the government expects up to 1 million by 2010.

A monumental amphitheater with seating for more than 5,000 still has astounding acoustics. Vomitoria -- the term for entrances leading to the tiers of seats in a Roman amphitheater -- stand on either side of the stage. From the higher seats, visitors can glimpse stunning views of sand dunes and sparkling sea.

Rolling sand dunes

Farther in from the coast, where the desert can be surveyed from imposing mountains, the town of Nalut boasts a castle carved into a rocky peak. Built 800 years ago, it features seven stories of caves where people stored food to protect it from raiding enemies.

Precarious stairs snake up the walls to the 500 rooms, many of which still have jars of olive oil built into their floors. Quranic verses are written in bas-relief on the ceilings.

Entering the desert, visitors pass herds of camels galloping across the lonesome highway. Vegetation gives way to gravelly scrub, which gives way to rolling sand dunes as visitors enter the Sahara Desert, the world's largest.

In al-Ramla, tourists struggle to scale the dunes, which shift inch by inch over the years in the howling wind. Their effort is rewarded by landscapes straight out of "Lawrence of Arabia."

"It's interesting for people to come and see them," says Franz Schneider, a 48-year-old railroad administrator from Vienna, Austria.

Sunset

He and his girlfriend spotted a package tour in a newspaper offering a week in three Libyan destinations -- including air, hotel and two meals a day -- for $1,300 per person. He said they couldn't pass it up.

After watching the sunset from the dunes, the couple descended to take photographs of Tuareg tribesmen -- their faces covered in broad, colorful shawls -- performing a traditional dance as more demurely dressed women sang and played drums.

Then they moved on to the nearby oasis of Ghadames. Its old city is made of mud, with an intricate system of underground canals that send water bubbling up in squares offering welcome respite from the claustrophobic passageways that lead through most of the city.

Another network of interconnected balconies allowed women to move about town from roof to roof, so the men in the streets below wouldn't see them.

Despite its splendor, few people see Ghadames. In 2003, only 600 tourists arrived, says Najmadeen Salam Hoda, who works for the government tourist operation here. Before sanctions were imposed, Ghadames received 4,000 a year.

"We're planning direct flights from Paris to Ghadames," Hoda says. He adds sadly: "But not yet."

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