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Libyans Hope Opening to West Will Bring in Money from US Tourists

Last month, the United States lifted a ban on travel to Libya by Americans. That followed Libya's efforts to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction programs. U.S. business executives, especially from the oil industry, are rushing to the oil-rich North African state. But Libyans are hoping that American tourists will discover their country as well.

Now that all the centrifuges used to enrich uranium for Libya's secret nuclear bomb project have been safely stored in the United States, and the vats of mustard gas have been neutralized, Americans can once again travel to Libya.

But Libyans, from government officials down to the ordinary people on the street, are counting on a restoration of economic ties between the two countries. They say that U.S. sanctions imposed in 1986, and still in place, have cost Libya tens-of-billions of dollars in lost business.

Since Colonel Moammar Gadhafi seized power 35 years ago, Libya's oil production, which accounts for nearly all of its foreign earnings, has dropped from more than three million barrels a day to just under 1.5 million barrels. Libya remains one of Africa's richest nations, but life has become increasingly difficult.

Libyans fervently believe that, if U.S. sanctions are lifted, their oil industry will take off, and they will again be wealthy. Libyan officials say they can make improvements to their decayed infrastructure with the help of European and Asian companies, but what they really want is for the Americans to return.

Libyan entrepreneur Sami Sadek, who owns a computer engineering firm, a furniture factory and one of Tripoli's most popular restaurants, says Americans have the best technology, and are willing to share their know-how [skills] with others. "When people work with Americans, you always hear from them that they got know-how. And, when you work with an American company, you either do work, or you go away. But when you work with European companies, you're there just because the contract says you're supposed to be there," he says.

A 23-year-old, who gave his name only as Hassan, works in his father's electronics shop in downtown Tripoli. He says he would like to work for an American company. "I'd like that, because we don't have big companies here, or petrol (gasoline), or anything, you know. We hope that, in the future, that American companies come here," he says.

Some diplomats believe the United States will not end its trade embargo against Libya until after the U.S. presidential election in November.

Still, influential Libyans see the opening of their country to the West as acknowledgment that portraying Libya as a leader of anti-Western countries will not revive its struggling economy.

Razeb Azzarouk is a top official at the Gadhafi Foundation, which is run by the Libyan leader's son. He says Libya's decision to abandon its weapons of mass destruction and pay compensation to relatives of the victims of airliner bombings had several goals, but that a crucial one was to attract American investment to rebuild the oil industry. "We thought that it is better to work for the development of our people, of our society. We have been victims of this embargo for many years, and we thought it is about time to take care of a lot of things, and we have to have all our resources to manage our economy and make life better," he says.

Although the travel ban has been lifted for Americans wanting to visit Libya, Libyans still find it difficult to get a visa to travel to the United States.

Ibrahim Rabti, an air traffic controller at Tripoli airport, is working on his English, and hopes to go to America to train on new state-of-the-art equipment. "I want to [go], for example, to college for aviation, because now there is a new system," he says.

Young Libyans are surprisingly in touch with the outside world, despite their country's long isolation. Satellite TV dishes sprout from even the humblest apartment blocks. Teenagers listen to American pop music.

And there are young men like 25-year-old Walid, who works at a travel agency. He changes his name to Wally when he chats on the Internet with Americans. He, too, wants to visit the United States. "I would like to see the people, just the people, and ask them what's going on in life. It's very friendly now," he says.

Libyans also hope Americans will visit their country, see its attractions and spend money here. Foremost among Libya's tourist sites is Leptis Magna, the ruins of a Roman city which, during the late second and early third centuries after Christ, rivaled Rome itself in splendor, architecture and wealth.

American pharmaceutical executive Jay MacAuliffe was stunned as he walked through what archeologists say is the most splendid display of Roman civilization that exists outside Italy. "It's just that you can have a sense of what it was like to be in that time of history," he says. "Magnificent!"

But Libya offers more than just Roman ruins and a pristine Mediterranean coastline. Hussam Hussein Zagar is a tour operator who wants to entice Americans to visit Libya's vast desert. He says there is no animosity toward the United States, despite decades of hostility between the two governments. He says Libyans have welcomed large numbers of Italians, whose country was once the not-so-popular colonial ruler of Libya. "The Italian market is the main market for Libya," he says. "That's due to the historical background that we have together, and we have turned the page of the past, especially with the occupation of the Italians over here, and we are man-to-man now. And we welcome all nations."

But before it can attract mass tourism, Libya needs to train its workers and build infrastructure - hotels, restaurants, roads and airports, like those of its neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt. Only then, says Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem, will Libya be able to exploit what he calls the country's greatest untapped natural resource.