The way the world’s media report on Libya these days, you’d think the whole country is one big battlefield, all flickering flames and crazed jihadis. Oddly enough, the people who live here don’t necessarily see it that way — despite their continuing frustrations with a dysfunctional central government and the frightening antics of uncontrolled militias. When most Libyans look around, they still see, in essence, the same old country they’ve always loved, and they can’t help imagining what a success the place would be if they could just open it up to the outside world: Unspoiled Mediterranean beaches with year-round sun. An astonishing range of Roman ruins and other ancient sites. The romance of the Sahara’s great sand ocean. And all of it just a short ferry ride away from the European Union.
Maybe it’s not as crazy as it sounds. Last week the town of Awjila, located in the desert to the southwest of Benghazi, held its second annual tourism and culture festival — its second, of course, since Libyan’s ended the 42-year-old dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Awjila, an ancient oasis town, boasts a lovely sampling of traditional architecture, in some cases dating back to the 12th century, as well as some of the world’s tastiest dates. (Palm tree agriculture is a mainstay of the local economy.)
Needless to say, Libya would benefit enormously from the establishment of a proper tourism sector. The country urgently needs to diversify its economy and reduce its dependence on oil — precisely why the Libyan authorities appear determined to embrace the country’s potential as a tourism destination.
Yeah, so Libya still suffers from security problems. But consider the example of Croatia. The Balkan Wars had barely ended when the first adventurous European Union tourists were already setting off to explore the delights of that beautiful nation on the Adriatic. By 2005, a mere ten years after the war, Croatia was already being named by the Lonely Planet guidebook as one of the world’s top destinations. Last year, the country drew 17.4 million tourists, generating billions of dollars of income. Croatia’s population: 4 million (a little bit less than Libya’s).
Of course, Libya first has to get its rampaging militias under control before it can even start considering to invite visitors — and that’s a goal that admittedly remains a long way off. Ikram Imam, Libya’s tourism minister, acknowledges the importance of establishing the rule of law and improving security conditions before the country can really start to develop the sector. Still, she does her best to sound optimistic.
That isn’t even the only problem, though. After years of Western-imposed sanctions and corresponding isolation from the world economy, Libya has little tourist infrastructure worth the name. Years of Qaddafi-imposed socialism have left the service sector underdeveloped. It will also be interesting to see if the deeply conservative Muslim population is willing to tolerate the sight of Western visitors freely consuming alcohol. Neighboring Egypt, where tourism has taken a dive since the Arab Spring broke out, has found itself confronting the same problem. Last year, the news that the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government (which has since been kicked out of power by the Egyptian military) was thinking about banning the sale of booze on the country’s beaches pummeled the already sagging tourism industry.
But you can’t blame Libyans for hoping, and Awjila embodies those hopes better than just about any other place in the country. It’s not just the beautiful buildings, either. Awjila is a place where Islamic Arab culture mixes congenially with that of the Berbers, the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa. The town prides itself on its festivals and colorful wedding parades, all featuring unique customs, music, and food. Visitors can also watch traditional horse and camel races — not to mention experiencing the glorious vastness of the nearby Sahara.
The Awjila Festival, in short, is a reflection of what most Libyans would like their country to become: a peaceful state that embraces diversity and celebrates difference in an environment welcoming to visitors from around the world. Not a bad dream at all.
So forget about the occasional pesky car bombing. Ignore those silly travel advisories from the U.S. State Department and the European Union. And don’t worry about the fact that you probably won’t see any other tourists around. Show a sense of adventure. Come to Libya. You certainly won’t forget the experience.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.