Libya, still off-limits to British travellers according to the Foreign Office, is one country you probably wouldn’t expect to see being touted as a tourist destination among the more unusual locations being showcased at the 2012 World Travel Market, a holiday trade show at ExCeL London. RT sent a camera crew there and found exhibitors avoiding the subject of the ongoing violence in Libya, and travel industry visitors seemingly unaware.
“The places where the tourists are interested in, the sites, are completely safe. I can recommend the east of Libya for anyone to come there and I can guarantee it’s going to be safe even more than cities like London or New York.”
But somewhere that’s not mentioned in the tourist guide is Bani Walid – a desert town that’s remained loyal to former leader Colonel Gaddafi, and has become the scene of some of the fiercest fighting since the Libyan uprising last year. Despite reports of indiscriminate shelling and gas attacks on the local population at the hands of the Libyan army, there’s been an almost total media blackout in the UK. RT ran the story for more than a fortnight, before anyone else picked it up.
We’ve got to sort of package this as a success. It’s very important for NATO, wherever NATO intervenes, no matter what the reality is, they’ve got to promote it as a success. So we have this sort of spin of these countries that have been “liberated”, as great places to go and great places to invest. And the reality for the everyday person in this country is a living hell.
Neil Clarke, journalist
The travel information packs are filled with reasons to visit Libya – and undoubtedly there are many. But there’s also a silence, one that’s echoed by the UK media – a seeming refusal to talk about what’s been happening in places like Bani Walid as Libya tries to entice travellers and reignite tourism that has all but died after nearly two years of civil unrest.
The silence on the subject is perhaps not surprising. For a tour operator trying to drum up much-needed business, the sights of bodies and homes burned to the ground are no selling points.
The reality is that the new government is struggling to control it’s militias and to bridge the deep divides that remain in the country – but none of that you’ll read about in a glossy brochure.
But what’s deeply disturbing is that despite a growing body of evidence about crimes against civilians, and increasingly vocal concerns from human rights organizations the UK media and government remain resolutely silent on the issues, creating a space for the pro-tourism message.
The tactic appears to be working. In a survey of 1,300 tourism chiefs attending the conference, more than half believed Libya had the potential to become a popular tourist spot, with just one in 10 dismissing the idea entirely.
“Libya could be one of tourism’s most exciting destinations in the future,” WTM director Simon Press told the Telegraph. “Many destinations such as Vietnam and Croatia have repositioned from conflict zones to tourism hotspots, and there is no reason why, over time, Libya cannot do the same.”
Libya’s presence at the World Travel Market comes despite the fact that the Foreign Office (FCO) currently advises against all but essential travel to the settlements of Zuwara, Az Zawiya, Tripoli, al Khums, Zlitan and Misrata, and the coastal towns from Ras Lanuf to the Egyptian Border, with the exception of Benghazi, which is in the group of areas for which the FCO advises against all travel.
The warnings mean that travellers will struggle to find travel insurance if they do decide to visit the country. However, British Airways has already resumed flights to Tripoli.
Several operators, including Exodus, Intrepid, Abercrombie and Kent and Responsible Travel, have previously offered trips to Libya, usually including a sightseeing tour of Tripoli and a visit to Leptis Magna.
A spokesman for Intrepid said it was hopeful of restarting tours of the country if the Foreign Office relaxed its advice.
The humanitarian situation remains difficult for the people of Bani Walid in Libya. To help people who fled the city after violent clashes last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is working with the Libyan Arab Red Crescent to distribute food, drinking water, the medicines and other essential items to more than 10,000 people in the neighboring towns of Tarhuna and Urban
Many had to leave Bani Walid since the resumption of fighting in the city a month ago. The number of displaced persons has increased, especially since the intensification of fighting in mid-October. They are likely to have sought refuge in neighbouring towns, including Tarhuna (100 kilometres north-west of Bani Walid) and Urban (90 km north-west of Bani Walid). “These people are upset, disturbed and angry. They left their homes with very little and need help,” says Asma Khaliq Awan, the ICRC delegate in charge of aid coordination in the region.
Woman: Bani Walid? What do you mean?
RT: There’s been fighting in Bani Walid, do you know about that?
Woman: No, not at all.
RT: You haven’t heard about that?
RT: But you work for a travel company?
RT: And they haven’t told you what’s been happening in Bani Walid?
Woman: No, what’s happened?
RT: A lot of fighting in last couple of weeks.
We went to confront the tour operator.
RT: You’re promoting tourism in Libya at the moment?
Man: Yes, that’s right.
RT: I saw you were speaking to some people, are you telling them what’s been happening in Bani Walid at the moment?
Man: No. Actually this is about travel and what will happen in the future. We do not speak about Bani Walid.