Libya to eclipse the competition as the astronomer's top holiday destination

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The Independent Online

Libya seldom springs to mind as a leading holiday destination but next year things could be very different.

Libya seldom springs to mind as a leading holiday destination but next year things could be very different.

The totalitarian Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahuriya, which combines strict penalties for criticism of the state or its leader, Muammar Gaddafi, with a total and strictly enforced ban on alcohol, is the Mediterranean's least popular holiday destination. However, all that will change next year with an event that is expected to propel Libya to the top of the heap, albeit temporarily. Libya is in prime position for the solar eclipse that will take place a year tomorrow.

"It is a very, very beautiful event and I defy anybody not to be moved by it," says Brian McGee, of the holiday company Explorers which is running tours that will take in the astronomical curiosity. In the two weeks since the company launched its tour, 90 per cent of the places have been sold, he said.

Roughly once a year, a stripe of the Earth's surface is cast into darkness as the Moon blots out the Sun in a total solar eclipse. The event of 29 March 2006 could be the most impressive of the decade. It begins at sunrise in Brazil, sweeps across the South Atlantic and makes landfall in Ghana - briefly blotting out the sun in the capital, Accra.

The path of totality curves over Nigeria and Niger and reaches its maximum duration of four minutes, seven seconds over the Libyan Sahara. The Moon's shadow then clips north-west Egypt, crosses the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey, the Black Sea and the south of the former Soviet Union before disappearing at sunset in western Mongolia.

Interest in astronomical tourism was spurred by the 1999 total eclipse which passed over Cornwall, but many of the million or so spectators who gathered to observe the event were disappointed because of cloud cover.

Serious eclipse-hunters study weather records to determine the location with the highest probability of clear skies. In late March, much of the track is at risk of overcast conditions, which jeopardises the success of the Mediterranean cruises that are being arranged for the event. But over the Libyan Sahara blue skies are the norm. Accordingly, Explorers has chosen a viewing site south of the Jalu Oasis.

To minimise problems arising from Libya's primitive tourism infrastructure, Mr McGee began planning his programme in 2003 and has chartered a cruise ship that will sail from Greece and moor at Benghazi.

On the day of the eclipse, passengers will make a 4am start by bus to the viewing site deep in the Sahara; after the event, they will be taken back to the ship and set sail.

The programme went on sale two weeks ago, with prices ranging from £1,000 to £2,000. All the cheaper cabins sold out quickly. At close of business on Saturday, only 10 per cent of the original 600-plus places remained. Mr McGee, who has been organising eclipse expeditions since the Kazakhstan event in 1981, said: "I've never known an eclipse exhibition to sell so fast".

Libya has some superb beaches, dramatic desert scenery and a wealth of classical remains: Leptis Magna, the greatest Roman site in the Mediterranean, was rediscovered last century beneath the dunes west of Tripoli. "If you're interested in architecture you'll love it," said one of the few British specialists offering holidays to Libya. "If you're interested in a beer or two, you won't." The Foreign Office warns: "Severe penalties are imposed for criticising the country, its leadership or religion."

Tony Blair's visit to Colonel Gaddafi last year failed to trigger a tourism boon - but the 2006 eclipse is likely to attract tens of thousands of visitors from across Europe and even the US, temporarily making it the most popular spot on the Med.

As a result, Libya's tourism industry will be put under extreme strain by the influx of visitors. "The average hotel occupancy rate is three to five per cent", Mr McGee said. "There's no way they're going to cope with 100 per cent occupancy."

Mr McGee expects his tour to sell out completely in the next few days and is now searching for a second vessel. One possible solution is that Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the easyJet founder, could make his ship, easyCruise One, available for what Mr McGee called "a spectacular piece of natural theatre".

Another solar eclipse will sweep across southern Europe in October this year, including Madrid in its path, but this event is the much less impressive annular eclipse where the Moon does not completely blot out the Sun.

WHERE TO GO

By Dan Pimlott

8 April 2005: A rare hybrid solar eclipse will occur, most clearly in Panama, Colombia and Venezuela. During a hybrid eclipse the Moon initially obscures all but a thin ring of the Sun, before eclipsing it totally. The total eclipse will only be visible at sea.

29 March 2006: A total eclipse will be visible from north and central Africa, Turkey and southern Russia, ending at sunset in western Mongolia. A partial eclipse will be seen across the northern two-thirds of Africa, central Asia and Europe, including the UK.

8 November 2006: A transit of Mercury will be visible from Australia, Asia, Europe and Africa, and the east of Brazil. During the transit Mercury will pass between the Earth and the Sun, appearing as a small black disk slowly moving in front of the Sun.

1 August 2008: A total eclipse will occur, starting in northern Canada, moving through northern Greenland, the Arctic Ocean, central Siberia, Mongolia, and ending in China. A partial eclipse will be visible in the UK.

22 July 2009: A total eclipse will be visible in India at sunrise, moving on into China, and the Pacific Ocean. This will be the longest eclipse of the 21st century, lasting six minutes and 39 seconds at its longest point just to the south of Japan.

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