Libya revolt spares 'Athens of Africa', but kills tourism

Last year, 10,000 tourists came to visit Cyrene

Published on 6 June 2011

Author(s): France24

Type:  News Published 17 May 2011

 Ancient Greek city Cyrene survived Libya's bloody revolution

The spectacular ruins of the ancient Greek city Cyrene survived Libya's bloody revolution intact, but the uprising has killed off tourism in a country that only recently opened up to outsiders.

Three cows wandering about the agora were on Sunday the only visitors to the breathtaking site on a hill-top where much still remains of a city founded in the 7th century BC and was once known as the "Athens of Africa."

Last year, 10,000 tourists from countries like Japan, Germany or Britain came to visit Cyrene, but not a single one has appeared since February when Libyans began their bid to topple Moamer Kadhafi, said tour guide Mohamed Bucharit.

Bucharit wandered nostalgically through the UN World Heritage site overlooking the Mediterranean, pointing out the statues of Hercules and Hermes, the running track, the amphitheatre and the Bacchus temple.

"We were very lucky that nothing was damaged. Fortunately they (Kadhafi's forces) didn't use tanks here, only guns," he said, describing the fighting in the town of Shahat, whose suburbs reach the edge of Cyrene.

Shahat saw scenes that were repeated across eastern Libya, in which Kadhafi's troops, sometimes backed by African mercenaries, tried and failed to put down protesters who managed to storm military bases and seize army weapons.

The uprising has put the Libyan tourism industry on hold.

The oil-rich north African state has long had immigrant workers from other African or Arab states and from Asia, but it was off-limits to Western tourists.

The decades of isolation came to an abrupt end in 2003 when Kadhafi told the world he was abandoning his nuclear ambitions.

Libyan authorities started issuing tourist visas, if only through tour operators bringing in groups on fixed itineraries that required the company of a Libyan guide.

Europeans, Americans and Asians started coming here in ever greater numbers to see the vast expanses of the Sahara desert, the forbidding mountain ranges, and the remains of ancient civilisations.

As the Lonely Planet guide book's 2007 edition put it: "Libya has it all."

The Lonely Planet's introduction also stated that another draw for foreign tourists was the fact that the country has "the unmistakable cachet of being ruled by one of the 20th century's most iconic figures, Colonel Moamer Kadhafi."

The west of the country, which is still controlled by the "iconic" leader, boasts two fine Roman cities, Leptis Magna and Sabratha, while sites in the rebel-held east retain countless vestiges of the Greek world.

The east, still called by its Greek name Cyrenaica, hosts World War II sites like Tobruk and is Libya's greenest corner, home to the Green Mountains, or Jebel al-Akhdar, which resemble southern Europe more than the desert terrain characteristic of most of Libya.

But all these tourist treasures are currently without visitors as the rebels, with the backing of massive NATO air power, move into the third month of their campaign to oust Kadhafi.

Apollonia, the former port for the city of Cyrene, lies next to the seaside village of Sousa, and is seen as one of the top five ancient sites in Libya.

But this former Greek town is also eerily quiet, its gates locked even though this should be the high season for foreign visitors.

Younis Hussein, who works at the four-star Al-Manara hotel in Sousa, said Sunday that just six rooms out of the total 90 were occupied, in contrast to the 80 rented at the same time last year.

A purpose-built tourist village a couple of kilometres along the coast was also practically empty.

"As long as Kadhafi is still alive no tourists will come," said Hussein.

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