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Could sun-soaked Libya be the Mediterranean's next tourism hot spot?

As temperatures rise in Libya hundreds of people are making their way to the coast and enjoying beaches that were previously exclusively for members of the former regime. Msnbc.com's Dara Brown reports.

Libya has all it takes to become a vacation paradise: 1,300 miles of palm-fringed coastline, five world-class cultural heritage sites and an attractive historic quarter in Tripoli featuring fine colonial buildings.

What is doesn’t have, though, is tourists.

But following the overthrow of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, there are plenty of reasons for hotels and tour operators to be optimistic.


Alexandre Meneghini / AP, file

One of the (mostly empty) beaches in Tripoli is seen in this file photo.

Soaked in sun, the country's position at the meeting point of the desert landscape of the Sahara and the Mediterranean makes it ideal for trekking and windsurfing.

Libya's extraordinary history and ancient archaeological riches -- it boasts five United Nations world cultural heritage sites, including the remains of the Roman Empire outpost Leptis Magna and the Greek Hellenic city of Cyrene -- are its primary attractions.

It was off-limits for decades as a pariah state thanks to Gadhafi’s involvement in global terrorism, but a thaw in relations with Western countries saw a 14 per cent rise in visitor numbers between 2006 and 2010 and a 30 per cent jump in hotel revenue over the same period from $49 million to $65 million, according to analysts Euromonitor.

'Big expectations'
That tourism renaissance was all but destroyed by the Arab Spring uprising and subsequent civil war, but there are hopes it could resume and emulate the success of other recovering war zones: the New York Times three years ago named Beirut as its number one global destination.

In Tripoli, the Rixos Al Nasr hotel -- where journalists were trapped during last August’s fierce fighting –- is open and full of guests, and its owners say they have “big expectations” in the coming months.

One small group is this week exploring the country on a trip organized by Political Tours, a specialist firm run by former New York Times Balkans correspondent Nicholas Wood, while managers at Simoon Travel, a British operator that organizes tours of the Middle East and North Africa, are visiting later this month with a view to restarting its Libya itineraries.

“We are optimistic because reports suggest most of the monuments and ancient sites have been left undamaged by the NATO bombing,” Simoon’s managing director Amelia Stewart told msnbc.com. “It is such a fascinating and diverse country and we would like to offer trips once it is safe enough to do so.”

Youssef Boudlal / Reuters, file

A view of Leptis Magna, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the Mediterranean coast, some 75 miles east of Tripoli.

Access to the country is slowly improving following the end of NATO airstrikes that drove out Gadhafi’s regime: United Airlines partner British Midland International resumes direct flights to Tripoli from London Heathrow later this month, while British Airways will return to the city from May 1.

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Business travelers still account for the majority of visitors as the oil industry returns, but huge problems remain. The ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) is struggling to impose its authority on a country awash with weapons and militias have stepped into the vacuum, carving the country into local fiefdoms.

“Each area has its own guys who consider themselves in charge, which creates a huge security problem,” Wood said. “That lack of co-ordination, added to bureaucracy, makes Libya a very difficult place to visit for the time being.”

Many Western hotel chains that opened in anticipation of a tourism boom remain closed for the time being. The Marriott in Tripoli is not accepting reservations, while a spokeswoman for New York-based Starwood Hotels said it did not yet have a reopening date for its Four Points by Sheraton in the city.

Goran Tomasevic / REUTERS

An uprising in Libya ousts dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Mustafa Özbinici, spokesman for the Turkish owners of the Rixos Al Nasr, said: “Libya is a intact country tourism-wise, with 2,200 kilometers [1,367 miles] of sea shore, so we believe that it will be a good development in long term. We have big expectations with Libya.

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“However, there are some difficulties still remaining, especially the process of reorganization. As a company, we are trying to support people of Libya during this hard time including the injured people and their families.”

The threat of sporadic violence has also pushed up the cost of travel insurance, putting tours firmly into the "niche" market: Simoon’s cheapest package starts at about $2,000. “We will have security staff with us,”Wood added.

Tourism ministers from across the Middle East will meet on April 30 for a special summit between the Arabian Travel Market and the World Tourism Organization to drive forward tourism in the wake of the Arab Spring.

“Prior to the onset of violence, the government had finally developed a Tourism Master Plan for 2009-2013, with some vision expressed about the much longer-term, through to 2025,” Nadejda Popova, tourism analyst with Euromonitor, told msnbc.com.

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“Investment started pouring into the country’s travel and tourism industry, with more than six 5-star hotels planned in Tripoli as well as ambitious development plans for airports, ports, roads and rail projects linking Libya to its neighbors. However, the future is now uncertain and Libya’s travel and tourism industry is expected to suffer losses for at least another two years. There is a great deal of reconstruction needed, and efforts will be geared towards getting the country back on its feet before engaging in more tourism developments.”

Without a government strategy for the industry, growth is likely to be slow. Tourism and leisure has never accounted for than one per cent of consumer spending in Libya, compared to the global average of 16 per cent, according to Popova.

But one thing seems certain: Libya is unlikely to follow north African neighbors such as Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco into mass tourism. “I doubt it will ever have resorts like Sharm el-Sheikh,” said Stewart. “Libya has always been careful to ensure it doesn’t end up with an industry catering for those wanting sun and cheap booze.”

'There will be no alcohol'
Her view was echoed by the Giuma Bukleb, media attaché to the Libyan Embassy in London. He told msnbc.com: “We will never be like other countries with lots of big resort hotels, and there will be no alcohol. We want to encourage people to see our heritage sites.”

The commander of Libya's rebel force says Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is sheltering weapons at Leptis Magna, a major Roman-era ruins on the civil war-ravaged nation. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.

He added: “We are very keen to welcome tourists but maybe the time is not right just now. We have to get the country back on its feet first.”

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There are other practical hurdles: visitors must still apply in advance for a visa, rather than making arrangements on arrival as is the case in Egypt. And most countries, including the United States, require travelers to inform their local embassy in Libya about their trip.

“Libya has such incredible potential but there is a long way to go,” Wood said.

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