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Libya: A New Beginning in the 21st Century

Written by Jack Vitek.

In April 2004, the US government lifted travel restrictions to Libya, a ban in place for 20 years. I flew into Tripoli on the day the ban was lifted in as a representative of Oklahoma State University because we were interested in having Libyans return to our institution. Prior to travel we were asked: aren’t you afraid? Are shots being fired there? How safe is it? People were stunned that we would embark on a trip to a country led by a terrorist.

We were hosted by the Libyan American Friendship League for a week and meet with academic, industrial, and a variety of other officials. Tripoli has the appearance of a modern city including good roads, a Mediterranean coast and climate, and all other trappings of a growing city. It lacked, however, electronic banking (all transactions were in cash), western franchises for food and food products, and no where was it smoke free.

I returned in February 2007, at the invitation of the Libyan government to attend a conference to honor of Colonel Gaddafi’s 37 years in power. In the three years since the sanctions were lifted, one could now buy Pepsi or Coke products everywhere. Transactions remain as cash only (no traveler’s checks are cashed). I saw American cars and trucks on the roads versus only one in 2004. Tripoli looked the same but Leptis Magna, a Roman city in ruins, changed. More souvenir stands sprang up outside the entrance and a charge was levied to enter; 1.5 dinar (less than $2.00) and 5 dinar for a permit to take your camera in. (A dinar is equivalent to 70 cents.)

I have been to Leptis Magna twice and am in awe of what the Romans built, the quality of construction, and the effort that went into human amenities almost 2,000 years ago. Leptis Magna is 120 km east of Tripoli and Sabrata is 80 KM west. A Roman limestone road connected these three cities. Ruins attest to the magnificent accomplishments of craftsmen in the Roman Empire. Sand covers areas adjacent to the major ruins and perhaps additional important archeological information will be uncovered in the future.

Today, Libya thrives on the profits derived from petroleum and agricultural products (dates, olives, grains, etc.). The tourism industry is beginning though people do report difficulty with getting visas to enter the country. Being an invited guest, I had no trouble entering or leaving country and look forward to going again. I walked the streets of Tripoli and shopped in the souk and thoroughly enjoyed interacting with people who recognized me as an American and spoke English with me. Many Libyans were educated in the USA before 1984 and are happy to see Americans and the opportunities their students will have to be educated in the USA.

If you enjoy Roman ruins, you can spend hours at Leptis Magna and Sabrata and leisurely studying the past. The theater in Leptis Magna sat 2,500 people and the coliseum sat 16,000. The fort in Tripoli that was attacked in the 1820s by American forces now houses a magnificent museum. A trip to Libya allows one to journey back in time as well as to appreciate a Muslim culture that will change as western influences return following two decades of products being withheld by the embargo.

I have only glimpsed the Sahara but also consider it to be a future destination. As Libya develops its tourism industry, trips to the desert will be attractive as the beaches on the Mediterranean Sea.