The news seemed too good to be true. Not only can this country offer one of the richest collections of classical antiquities outside Greece and Rome, it has unlimited supplies of sun and sand.
As with the holiday brochure small print, there are catches. The man laying down the welcome mat for British holiday firms is Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, ruler of that international pariah Libya.
In a televised speech last week, Col Gaddafi outlined solutions to the economic and political problems caused by the UN sanctions imposed on Libya last year after the country's refusal to hand over two suspects wanted for the Lockerbie bombing. One way, he said, was to invite foreign firms to invest in mass tourism: 'Tourism produces a very big income. Libya had a ban on tourism. However, Libya is very, very rich in tourist attractions.'
Britain's travel companies, famous for their ability to run wild at the glimpse of even the smallest commercial opportunity, were resisting the temptation to pop the champagne corks. 'Because of the UN sanctions there are no flights into Libya; there are no hotels; and the country is dry, no alcohol is allowed. Apart from all that, I can't see any problems in developing tourism,' observed one tour operator drily.
Rosemary Astles, marketing director of Thomson Holidays, said Libya was not likely to be making an early appearance in the company's Summer Sun programme. 'We do get letters from countries - most frequently from the Gulf states - encouraging us to include them in our programmes. But not from Libya.'
The independent traveller will find that there are other problems, apart from the absence of direct flights. Tourist information is hard to find: the Africa on a Shoestring guide (Lonely Planet), for example, runs to little more than half-a-dozen pages on Libya. Its descriptions are uninviting: in Tripoli, 'as elsewhere in Libya, there is nowhere cheap to stay . . . two-star hotels are dirty, everything malfunctions and they're frequently full.'
The guide is even more discouraging to female tourists, whom it warns to copy Libyan women and hide beneath a chuddar. 'If you're not similarly clad then it will be assumed you are sexually available, and with a ratio of men to women in Tripoli of 7:1 that is inviting harassment.' A lone woman seeking hotel accommodation may be asked to produce a marriage certificate.
The Foreign Office warns potential travellers (who should 'consider whether their visits are really necessary'): 'The safety and reliability of internal flights may (also) be affected, since sanctions also include a ban on the supply of aircraft and on components and insurance for aircraft.'
Libya has no embassy in Britain; its interests are represented by a Libyan charge d'affaires at the Saudi Arabian embassy who is now busy encouraging prospective tourists. 'I'm getting 50 to 100 visa applications a day. When do you want to go? Come in and have a chat,' Col Gaddafi's man enthused.
Isn't Libya hard to get to? 'No, no: hydrofoil from Malta to Tripoli - six hours. Get your visa in Malta - twenty quid. No problem.' But there are no hotels in Libya. 'There are hundreds, all types, very nice. Come in and have a chat. I'll tell you. When do you want to go?'
I suggested that the country's alcohol-free status might provide a barrier to tourist development. 'Lager isn't everything. Do you think lager is everything? We have fresh food, we have fruit and we have fresh juice. Much healthier. Very nice. Please come in and have a chat.'
Charter flights to Libya may not be exactly revving up, but up- market firms and their culture- vulture clients are making plans.
Next month Libya is included in the itinerary of Swan Hellenic's 'The Flowering of the Moorish West' cruise, with a day's stop in Tripoli for an excursion to Sabratha - 'a seasonal Carthaginian trading port . . . excavations have revealed buildings from the Punic and Roman eras' - or an optional day-trip to Leptis Magna ('one of the greater Roman provincial cities').
'I went to Libya two years ago and had the most wonderful holiday of my whole life,' said Sissie Chan of Swan Hellenic. 'The archaeological sites are bigger and better than Turkey's - and without all the tourists.'
Jim Smith of Jasmin Tours, which includes Iran and the Yemen among its featured destinations, says he can't wait to start offering tours to Libya. He is hoping to visit the country soon to organise a holiday programme.
Libya's hopes for economic salvation through tourism are shared by other unlikely destinations. ten years ago Cuba was hard to get into: now it enjoys pride of place in Thomson's Winter Sun programme. Iran, Syria, Bhutan, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are similarly keen to attract tourists.
Justin Fleming, managing director of Panorama Holidays which specialises in package holidays to Libya's neighbour, Tunisia, has no designs on Libya. 'The country I'm looking at right now is Vietnam: sun and sand holidays. The country has enormous potential, terrific potential: there are superb beaches. All we have to do is change people's perceptions of the place . . .'
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