It is Colonel Gaddafi's Libya. One of those countries designed to make a living from tourism. Except that it doesn't. For one thing, this is an oil rich land which, unlike its nearest neighbours Tunisia and above all Egypt, is not totally desperate for the revenue that tourism brings. But the fact is that there are hardly any tourists here at all. Yesterday I found myself inside the walled forum of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna, which may well be the largest enclosed area surviving to us from the entire Roman world. Apart from myself and my guide, the only other tourists were a Belgian couple who walked round in a daze, videoing every stone slab, column and Medusa head in sight. Who can blame them? In the Mediterranean, only Albania rivals Libya. And Albania does not have anything remotely on the scale of Leptis Magna.
Generally, prospects of mass tourism remain remote, which should be a relief to everybody: to the hoteliers who will not have to cope with frustrated tourists; to the tourists who will not have to refrain from drinking or topless sunbathing; to the Islamists who will not have to worry about the sight of hedonistic Europeans on the beaches; to the Libyan economists who will not (yet) be forced to sort out their non-convertible currency.
It should be also be a relief to anyone who is interested in cultural tourism. That is to say, those people whose enjoyment of places like, say, the Parthenon in Athens is not enhanced by the arrival of 40 coach loads of tourists before breakfast time, all looking about as interested in Greek ruins as 12-year-olds on their way to second form history. The only people patient and determined enough to visit Libya have got to be more than a little bit interested in culture and ancient history.
Because this is not an easy country to get into. The government of Libya makes it well nigh impossible to enter the country unless you are under the supervision of a tour operator. Casual tourist visas for backpackers are not issued. But from the whole of Britain there are only four or five operators offering Libya this year and generally just one or two departures each. The fact that Libya happens to be under an air embargo meaning that its nearest airport is in the Tunisian town of Djerba is a mere detail.
Another factor keeping tourism low is the extremely bad public image of Libya. What we all think we know about the place is its penchant for lowdown tricks such as the downing of American aircraft over Scottish villages. We also have a vague idea of insane governmental rhetoric and an excess of desert and religion, meaning a complete absence of alcohol and women.
In other words, you are asking, who on earth would want to go there anyway? Well I would. I can hereby vouch for the fact that there are Libyan women out there, and I have met them. I have even drunk espressos in classic Mediterranean cafes in colonnaded walkways. I have strolled in the shade of eucalyptus trees and trodden pine needles underfoot. I have got sunburnt pacing the marble flagstones of ancient cities, I have marvelled at the statues of naked gods, strained to read upside down inscriptions, photographed camels - basically I have had a thoroughly exclusive Mediterranean experience of the sort that is no longer available anywhere else.
Here's hoping that the Libyan government continues to treat tourists with the deep suspicion that they richly deserve.Reuse content