|Volume 4, issue #20 - Monday, November 22, 1999|
17-09-99 Jamal Mohammed pointed to the sparkling, deep blue waters of the Mediterranean and the magnificent Roman columns and amphitheatre right up the coast. "We wonder why tourists don't flock to Libya to enjoy this," the Information Ministry official said during a tour of Sabratah, 44 miles west of Tripoli, the capital.
"We have the coastline, we have the desert, we have the ruins. And we welcome people from all over the world, even from America."
Since emerging in April from seven years of isolating UN sanctions, Libya has been advertising its heritage and natural beauty - vast deserts rippling with sand dunes, 2,000-year-old mosaics and prehistoric engravings - in a bid to cash in on those wonders.
It's part of a plan to make the country's economy less dependent on oil. The campaign also includes wooing foreign investors for non-oil sectors, such as the construction of a railway line that would stretch across Libya from Tunisia to Egypt and the third phase of a man-made river that takes water from aquifers in the south to cities in the north.
The suspension of the sanctions has had little impact on the economy. The United Nations made the move following Col. Moammar Gadhafi's surrender of two Libyans charged in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Libya had moved its money to neutral areas before its overseas assets were frozen under the embargo. It could always buy most spare parts for its oil technology, albeit at higher prices, and sell its oil. And the economy survived the sanctions, with Libya remaining one of the few nations in the world without debt.
But behind Libya's drive to diversify is the realisation that keeping its economy wholly dependent on oil - more than 90 % of its revenues come from oil sales - is dangerous, especially considering recent fluctuations in oil prices, which have rebounded after plunging to $ 10 a barrel last year. Libya produces 1.3 mm bpd, three-fourths for export. Libya also needs the extra income to deal with high unemployment, estimated at 30 %, and a 10 % inflation rate.
Foreign companies have been sending delegations to explore business opportunities, but very few contracts have been handed out. Even the United States, which still maintains unilateral sanctions, is allowing Occidental Petroleum Corp. to send representatives to Libya to survey oil production assets the company was forced to leave behind because of the embargo.
"The competition is strong," said Marcus Courage, account executive at the London-based Strategic Profile International, the secretariat for the British-Libyan Business Group, a grouping of British businesses which trade in Libya. Courage, who visited Libya in July with a delegation of 20 British businesses and two members of parliament, said Libyan officials will study the bids coming in carefully. "I don't envisage that any company going out there on a whim to secure a lucrative contract will be awarded unless they have shown long-term commitment to the country," he said.
In a signof Libya's seriousness to open up the country, Gadhafi, who had long been suspicious of foreign capital, appeared at the first investment conference in Libya in more than 30 years to reassure a symposium of more than 100 Asian, African, European, Middle Eastern and Canadian industrialists and financiers that their assets will be protected by law.
Gadhafi has also been attempting to recast his image from terrorism-supporter to peacemaker. Forty-three African leaders responded to his call for an extraordinary summit of the Organisation of African Unity, giving him a political boost. Libya, however, has done little to improve its tourism infrastructure despite its drive to attract visitors. A total of 88,000 tourists, 55,000 of them from Europe, travelled to Libya in 1996, according to official statistics.
Only two hotels - both government-run - and about half a dozen restaurants in Tripoli meet Western standards. There's virtually no local souvenir industry, but stamps bigger than credit cards venerating Gadhafi are popular gifts. Also, the Libyans are very choosy about whom they'll admit into the country.
Mohammed, the Libyan official, said his country welcomes serious, culture-seeking tourists who would be happy to survive on a Libyan diet of rice and meat washed down with Kawthar, a local imitation of Pepsi, and not hordes of sightseers on packaged tours. Alcohol is banned in Libya. "Those who want to eat McDonald's can go to New York," he said.