Security risk clouds Libya's tourism ambitions

Wed Jun 19, 2013 10:16am EDT
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By Marie-Louise Gumuchian

SABRATHA, Libya (Reuters) - The ruins of a grandiose Roman theatre behind them, two foreigners taking pictures in the Libyan coastal city of Sabratha make a rare sight these days.

The ancient Roman city used to attract more than 20,000 foreign visitors annually before the 2011 war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi. Now the temples and mosaics overlooking the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean are usually deserted.

The two European visitors touring the UNESCO World Heritage site on this quiet day are geologists on a work trip to Libya. A few Libyan families and a group of boy scouts mill around.

"The numbers are low these days, people no longer come to Libya as tourists. Our visitors are people who already work in Libya or those who travel here on business trips," Mohammed Bujila, head of the antiquities department at Sabratha, said.

"Things are different because of the problems we have but we hope that maybe next year, tourism will begin again."

With Gaddafi's iron-fisted rule isolating Libya for years, the tourism industry was in its infancy before the country's "Arab Spring" uprising ground it to a halt.

Now that he is gone, many hope democratic reforms will bring tourists to a country that boasts 1,700 kms (1,056 miles) of coastline, ancient treasures including five UNESCO World Heritage sites and spectacular desert views.

The government hopes future tourism revenues will help diversify Libya's income - making it less reliant on oil and gas exports - and create jobs to reduce unemployment, currently estimated at 15 percent.   Continued...

Old Roman ruins stand in the ancient archeaological site of Sabratha on Libya's Mediterreanean coast, June 1, 2013. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny